Eight ways to exercise wisdom with your wallet
Over recent months the Government has announced unprecedented education spending, including more than pound;1.5 billion for school buildings, pound;500 million for schemes to tackle truancy and school exclusions, pound;24 million on books for the Year of Reading and pound;700 million for the National Grid for Learning. A typical primary school, for instance, could have already had pound;15,000 of National Grid for Learning money, as well as some for books. When was the last time a primary school had that much extra money in one lump for anything at all?
It is unlikely that suppliers at the annual Education Show (March 11-13) will see headteachers crossing the car park at Birmingham's National Exhibition Centre pushing wheelbarrows full of cash. Much of the new money is for training. Quite a lot of it - cash to combat truancy, for example - is likely to go on authority-wide projects. Other funds, such as the pound;500 million for reducing infant class sizes, have to be spent in specified ways. Even so, there is money about - albeit in well-stuffed wallets rather than wheelbarrows.
Basic school budgets, particularly in well-favoured authorities, are healthier than they were and there is the opportunity to bid for additional funds under the broad heading of "school improvement".
Additionally, the Government is making authorities delegate more of their own money to schools. This will not make them richer, but it will involve governors in more budget juggling, deciding between books, computers, a minibus, another teacher, more classroom assistants, training, hall curtains, furniture, putting in safety glass or fixing the boiler.
If you do have money to spend, here are some principles to bear in mind.
* Decide what you want to achieve before you decide what to buy. Looking in catalogues or touring the Education Show can make you lose sight of your priorities.
Take big print books, for example, - mentioned in last year's preview by Ted Wragg, who found that they were widely used in some schools and unknown in others. The word has spread and now every infant teacher is looking for big books. They are expensive, however, so before you spend every penny of your literacy money on more of them, consider Ted's words on the matter:
"share text publicly in whole-class teaching that would be too small to highlight using a normal-sized book". Looking at it like that, you may find other ways of doing the same job such as OHP transparencies, for example. Well produced posters with text in large print are also useful. They cannot replace big books, but they can supplement them.
* Do your own thing. Often, the local education authority has a particular policy on, say, what computers to use. Follow the lead and you will get support. If you feel confident, though, and have considered all the options, have the courage to go your own way. After all, the authority's policy may not be quite right for your school's needs. There are other ways of finding support - from the supplier, for example. Make sure that you know what you are doing, though, and appreciate that your future planning will always have to take into account the decision you have made.
* Do not feel guilty about allocating all your funds on learning resources. Teachers and governors understandably want to spend every penny on more teachers, books, and curriculum resources, but that leads eventually to collapsing chairs, an entrance hall to be ashamed of, threadbare curtains in the hall and a staffroom furnished from skips.
Try hard to finance one extra project a year, - refurnishing the staffroom, entrance hall, offices, or new curtains, for example. You could be surprised by what a boost to the morale of the teachers, parents and children that could bring.
* Are you sitting comfortably? The same guilt feeling that stops us from buying a good coffee maker for the staffroom also prevents us from giving children good chairs to sit on. Many schools have old laminated wooden chairs that are splitting. They scratch legs and snag tights, they are not comfortable, and the effort to make the best of what furniture there is leads to big children sitting on little chairs.
Try refurnishing one classroom a year with decent chairs for around pound;400.
* Think about seating for parents. Big adults, junior chairs and poor sightlines make for a less than auspicious meeting or concert. If hall events are important, then seating and staging need thinking about. Do not assume that you do not have enough storage space. There is some astonishingly clever stacking staging around.
* Make the furniture fit the philosophy. In many primary classrooms, children sit at grouped tables and fetch their work, in trays, from stacking units. Changes in styles of classroom management - more whole-class teaching, for example - make this arrangement less convenient than it used to be, and some schools are buying and refurbishing secondhand lift-top desks. Should you have the money, though, there are some excellent new desk designs on the market, with sloping writing surfaces and storage space underneath. Again, consider changing maybe one classroom per year.
* Think about the school office. The seats and desks provided for some office staff are simply not good enough. School secretaries, aware of the pressures of funding, are unlikely to complain. Pay them some attention, though; give them ergonomic seating and computer stations and they will work more happily, more efficiently and more safely.
* Do not assume that you always need another computer. I recently heard a Year 11 music student complain that his school had "too many computers." I know what he meant. There are other priorities. If you do not carry out audits, machines end up being under-used and under-supported. Every pound;1,000 saved on a computer could be used for something else - some technician-time to mend the ones that break down, or some software training. Or perhaps a trombone for the school orchestra.