Government plans to increase education spending could mean some tough new approaches to schools' financial accountability. Jon Slater reports.
TEACHERS already wilting in the pressure-cooker environment created by the three Ts - testing, targets and (league) tables - can expect little respite. Instead, ministers are set to turn up the heat.
Currently, the focus is on improving test results and reducing exclusions. And the Government's targets on literacy, numeracy and GCSEs are likely to remain the political priorities until the general election.
But with education spending set to rise by more than 10 per cent in real terms over the next two years (pound;4 billion) and further increases likely to be announced in the summer, the issue of school efficiency is also coming to the boil. Value-for-money league tables could be Whitehall's next initiative in schools.
Gordon Brown, keen to retain his "Iron Chancellor" image, is putting pressure on education and health ministers to ensure he receives a political return on the extra investment.
Tony Blair's decision to take personal responsibility for modernising the health service shows just how important this is for the Government. While David Blunkett's high standing within the Cabinet means less prime ministerial interference in education, attempts to improve value for money in education will be no less rigorous.
Indeed, work is already underway. Last summer's announcement of an extra pound;19bn for education was accompanied by new public-sector service agreements in which the Treasury demanded efficiency savings in return.
The strings attached to the new education handout included not only literacy, numeracy, GCSE and truancy targets, but also a commitment to develop a benchmarking project to promote efficiency in schools, "demonstrating how good practice can be spread to cut costs".
A tough approach to high-spending schools can already be seen in sixth forms. As reported in FE Focus last week, the new inspection regime will impose value-for-money measures, which for the first time will make it possible to compare teaching standards and costs in both sixth forms and colleges.
This could mean the closure of hundreds of sixth forms in small schools, where costs are higher than in large colleges.
The higher funding for school sixth forms has long been controversial in the further education sector, but it seems likely that schools will face similar scrutiny.
The Treasury is putting pressure on the Department for Education and Employment to collect data that shows what schools deliver in return for their cash.
Groups have been set up to see how the public sector - including education - can be made more efficient. One such is the Public Services Productivity Panel, which has just begun to publish its first round of reports. The schools paper, expected in the next few weeks, will look at "improving communication between central government and individual schools; enabling comparison in performance between schools ... and making schools more accountable for their own performance".
It is likely to take up the theme of a DFEE research paper by David Mayston and David Jesson of the Centre for Performance Evaluation and Resource Management at York university, published just before Christmas.
This argues the case for a national database that compares schools' spending and results and looks at how it can be achieved.
"The development of a national database can help to establish stronger linkages between the resourcing and performance vriables involved, and make all parties aware of their responsibilities to make the best use of available resources," the report said.
Dr Mayston and Professor Jesson propose that the database should include information on schools' spending in a variety of areas - teachers, school dinners, books - and the outcomes they achieve. They argue that this would be a huge step forward in the management of schools.
It could revolutionise the ability of outside agencies such as the Office for Standards in Education and local authorities to inspect schools and intervene to raise standards.
As the DFEE's summary of the report said: "Each LEA needs to be able to identify those schools which are delivering poor value for money and value added from available resources, and advise its schools on the directions in which resources might be better deployed."
John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, is in favour of more comparisons between schools. "There is too much variation between the funding of similar schools in different parts of the country, but the expectations on them all are the same," he said. "If data of that sort were generated, it would strengthen the case for a national funding formula for schools."
However, Professor Carol Fitzgibbon of Durham University is more sceptical. She thinks it would be very difficult to compare schools in different areas - even by using value-added measures. "For a school to be held accountable in that way is difficult. The comparison would have to relate to how difficult it is to attract staff and therefore if a school has to pay higher rates," she said.
Professor Fitzgibbon believes that rather than examining the value for money schools provide, the Government should first work out the value for money its own policies provide.
"In medicine, they don't go around asking whose fault cholera is. They try to treat it and they do it with methods approved in clinical trials. The same approach should be used in education," she said. "I would recommend that schools stop participating in government initiatives until ministers produce cost-benefit analysis to show they work."
Dr Mayston and Professor Jesson also point to the potential benefits to policy development of their database. It could be used by local authorities to assess the amount schools get for standards-fund projects - or by central government to assess the relative merits of investing in, say, new technology or classroom assistants.
It will also help headteachers to allocate resources within schools, perhaps persuading them to use teachers' time more effectively and reducing the time spent on educationally unproductive tasks.
But in the current political climate, the focus is likely to remain on schools' efficiency and if this information is collected centrally, politicians are unlikely to prevent parents finding out if their child's school offers value for money.
David Reynolds of Loughborough University, who helped to draw up the Government's numeracy strategy, believes value-for-money league tables are inevitable. "I'm 100 per cent in favour of them. This is another lens to look at schools through. There are people who worry about it, but it's going to happen anyway - it's like the tide coming in," he said.
"Linking Educational Resourcing with Enhanced Educational Outcomes" by David Mayston and David Jesson is available from DFEE publications, PO Box 5050, Sherwood Park, Annesley, Nottingham NG15 0DJ. Tel: 0845 6022260. Email: email@example.com