Headteachers: Heads must prepare for public purse tightening

4th September 2009 at 01:00
With the public purse set for an ominously quiet year, tumbling budgets and staffing losses are real threats. Richard Vaughan reports on how education is increasingly becoming a matter of financial survival

Original paper headline: Heads must act like masters of business as cuts begin to kick in

The memory of Chancellor Alistair Darling holding the battered red briefcase aloft outside No 10 last April on what was the most important Budget day in recent memory has long since faded in the minds of many headteachers.

Some could even be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about; perhaps letting out a sigh of relief when taking a glimpse at the school balance books for the next academic year. But be warned, it is a false comfort.

Despite front-page reports shouting of "rallying markets", of "upward trends" and even our European neighbours dragging themselves out of recession, this is merely the end of the beginning of the financial storm that started last year.

A general election has to be called in the next year and, regardless of who wins, Labour or the Conservatives will have to start picking up the pieces of the fiscal turmoil that started in the banking sector and spread throughout the economy.

By bailing out the banks and instigating this "Keynesian" method of financially resuscitating the economy, Labour may have avoided a significantly worse financial disaster. This remains to be seen. But what is certain is that the Government, be it red or blue, is going to squeeze the public purse after 2010.

Last April's budget forecast that public spending will grow by just 0.7 per cent between 2011 and 2014, meaning increased spending on schools will be as low as 2 or 3 per cent, and for some schools it could drop to as little as 1 or 2 per cent.

Schools to feel recession effects

Once this takes effect, schools will really begin to feel the pinch. And those schools that have falling numbers could be in particular trouble, according to education recruitment expert Professor John Howson.

"A number of schools could well be thinking, `Recession? What recession?'" he said. "But if you are doing what you should have been, and that is spending all your money each year, you may find the next few years a lot harder."

Professor Howson said secondary schools will feel the pain most acutely but schools in areas with decling pupil numbers will have "major problems" when the cuts begin to take hold.

"The combination of falling rolls and spending less on secondary schools will have big effects," he said. "Secondary schools are likely to be caught between the primary sector and further education.

"With the school leaving age increasing to 18, further education colleges will see an increase. The most affected by the cuts is likely to be the secondary sector - in particular, secondaries without sixth forms."

Professor Howson added that schools will be forced to act like businesses more than ever before. Alternative revenue streams will need to be looked into in order to raise additional cash, such as letting out the grounds, and possibly even the halls for functions.

The next steps for schools would be to make them more efficient, instigating drives to use energy more effectively. While doing this, bursars will be looking at their procurement and trying to cut utility bills.

History says the next thing to go will be non-essential routine maintenance of schools. Questions such as "Can we last another year with our computers?" or "Do we really need another piano?" are likely to be asked more and more.

But once all these avenues have been exhausted, there will be only one thing left for heads to do: cut staff numbers.

Schools that employed large senior leadership teams during the good years will look to slim them down, resulting in positions such as deputy heads being cut.

According to Professor Howson, approximately 2,000 teachers were made redundant this year, and he is expecting a similar figure over the next year, meaning nearly 1 per cent of the workforce will be out of a job.

Parklands High in Liverpool is one school that has already seens its head count reduced over the summer, as it tries to prepare for tighter times ahead.

Headteacher Alan Smithies said: "Schools in Liverpool have been suffering from a decline in pupils already, and there will be a bit of a dip for a couple of years before we catch up with numbers again.

"So we're looking at the prospect of receiving less money because we have less kids as well as overall cuts in spending. It's a bit of a double whammy. We will definitely be monitoring our budgets.

"We have already reduced our staffing levels in anticipation and managed to do economising in other areas. Fortunately, all our IT is OK at the moment, but you have to think about what you're going to do when you need to replace it.

"Technology moves very quickly. We will have to think about whether we will be in a position to make sure the kids have access to the technology they need."

Bangs says no need for panic

But according to John Bangs, head of education at the NUT, heads should not panic now.

"It's very hard for schools looking at their budgets to second-guess what is going to happen," he said. "Headteachers and governing bodies are on the cusp of whether they should be pulling the horns in on their budgets prior to the comprehensive spending review (CSR), or whether to wait for it. Personally, I think they should wait. There is no point second- guessing it."

Mr Bangs added that until we know the outcome of the general election, everything will be simply conjecture.

"What it's all dependent on is if the Gordon Brown government continues after the election and what its public priorities will be," he said. "Any Labour government will seek to prioritise the core services but it would obviously depend on which areas they want to keep spending in.

"One effect of the Conservative promotion of `free schools' is that all decisions will rest entirely on the headteachers and the governing bodies - from how you spend your money to staffing levels.

"The problem with these independent state schools is that they allow the Government to back away from any responsibility. This is particularly troublesome when schools will be staring at the potential of redundancies. That is hugely problematic."

Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, believes the Government could be doing more to help schools become more efficient.

"There is certainly an issue when it comes to the procurement of services for schools, and which one will be the best value for money," he said. "Smaller schools in particular have less capacity to shop around to find out what is best on the market.

"I think it would be interesting to see organisations such as Becta (the schools technology agency) adopting the role similar to the Which? report for schools. It could tell you the best places to buy new machinery, and who was best to look after the maintenance of it. It can be very easy for schools to get trapped into service contracts that could end up costing them a fortune."

Although these measures may seem trifling right now, when budgets become squeezed, every penny counts and a little saved here and there can go a long way.

And one thing is for certain: any heads with plans to replace those old TVs in the science department with the latest flat screens may want to reconsider - for this is the last year of plenty.

Taking the strain

  • Public spending is to be cut to 0.7 per cent from 1.1 per cent in 201112.
  • Spending on schools could be as low as 1 per cent down in some areas between 2011 and 2014.
  • Secondary schools catering for 11- to 16-year-olds are likely to be hit hardest.
  • Up to 1 per cent of the workforce are to lose their jobs.
  • Call for organisations such as Becta to adopt Which? report role for schools.

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