‘On school funding, Amanda Spielman was right’

The chief inspector was correct that schools have suffered under austerity – and that some are still inefficient

Jonathan Simons

Coronavirus closures could cost colleges up to £1m, warns Association of Colleges

There’s a meme on Twitter called #NotAllMen, used to satirise men who enter into a conversation where a woman is talking about the sexist things men do, ranging from the very serious to the lighthearted. Said man interrupts to point out that not all men do this. 

Well, sure. But pointing out that it doesn’t occur among every single man doesn’t actually change the fundamental issue being raised.

Ofsted’s report on school finances has met with a similar response. It found – within a self-declared small sample – that the government cuts to funding were having an impact on the quality of education being delivered by many schools. It laid out, at length, some tough messages for the government about the consequences at the coal face. 

Poor decision making

This has largely been ignored by many – and conveniently disavowed by the Department for Education (DfE).

The report also found – in one paragraph at the end – the following: “The research showed that, although there was a lot of evidence of schools making well-thought-through decisions using research evidence and financial benchmarking, this was not always the case. We saw some schools making poor decisions that had an unnecessary impact on quality of education.”

In her blog, Amanda Spielman referred to it: “Poor decision making in response to financial pressure is potentially harmful to quality of education. But this could be as big an issue when funding is increased. Funding can still be squandered when it is plentiful, meaning taxpayers’ money could be spent for little benefit.”

“Squandered” – the word that has caused such outrage – is in her commentary but not the report. 

Genuinely perplexed

But the main point is that, although many schools are making financial decisions based on evidence and good decision-making processes, some aren’t. And, in the latter cases, that is likely to lead to worse outcomes for pupils.

I’m genuinely perplexed as to why this is such a controversial thing to say. One of the best elements of open data that the DfE has produced in recent years is the school benchmarking service

Anyone can go on to the website, find similar schools and compare the finances. Income, balances, expenditure by category: it’s all there. And it’s easy to find big variances of spending among otherwise similar schools.

I’m not blaming schools by pointing this out. Neither am I implying that headteachersschool business managers and governors don’t agonise over budget cuts. 

And, no, the huge variability of school funding doesn’t help. Some schools have long had to get by being a lot more parsimonious than some of their close neighbours because they’re funded much less. 

But we do still see variation within every local authority. And any example of money that could have been spent more effectively, or more efficiently, or could have bought the same for less, is money that has been “squandered”. #NotAllSchools. But some.

The law of a big system

This situation isn’t unique to schools. It’s found in the NHS, where there is a huge variety of prices paid for the same basic medical items by different NHS trusts.

Why does this happen? Call it the law of a big system. We have thousands of schools and, although some of them buy collectively or from negotiated frameworks, most don’t. 

In any system where thousands of people are buying millions of things, some of them will pay a lot less than others. Capacity, time, knowledge and expertise are not evenly distributed.

I suspect the DfE data – and the tight funding over the past decade – have driven the system to get a lot better. Certainly, the school resource-management adviser reports that I’ve seen for schools often identify pretty trifling savings. 

Former academies minister Lord Agnew was on to the right idea when he tried to push greater efficiency and transparency on to the system but wrong in the way he often spoke about it.

But the fact that the system is underfunded, and the continuing inequities of a spend-plus funding system that is 10 years or more out of date, doesn’t justify the response Ofsted has had to this research. 

Outrage as substitute for debate

Geoff Barton, who I respect hugely – and who I know didn’t write the headline – is incorrect if he makes a case that “schools have not, do not and will not squander cash”. 

And the WorthLess group are way out of line with an outraged call that the Ofsted chief inspector should “apologise or resign”.

Let’s make it simple. Does “squandering” mean that there’s enough money in the system overall – that if headteachers were more efficient schools would all be fine?

No. I don’t know how much clearer to make it than that. School funding has shrunk by a significant amount over the past 10 years or so, and the commitment by the DfE to increase it is welcome and necessary.

But it’s a mistake of significant proportion for headteachers’ representatives to argue that there is no inefficiency in the system and not to recognise that this is something that we all have a shared interest in addressing.

It is not only useful but necessary for the DfE to publish data on this and for Ofsted to look at it. And calls to “apologise or resign” for an entirely plausible finding of some inefficiency are as wearily predictable as they are inappropriate.

Outrage is not – and must not be – a substitute for reasoned public policy debate. And that’s something that #AllMen – and indeed all women – should be able to agree on.

Jonathan Simons is a director at the Public First policy consultancy

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Jonathan Simons

Jonathan Simons is a director and head of education practice at Public First, and has seen Home Alone too many times for a grown man

Latest stories