Do you know the benchmarks inspectors use to gauge whether schools provide value for money? Mark Whitehead explains.
Like motherhood and apple pie, everyone is in favour of value for money. None more so than hard-pressed headteachers and school governors facing tight budgets and continual calls to produce better results.
If this year's annual report by the chief inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead, was anything to go by, most are doing a reasonable job of eking out scarce resources. About nine in ten primary and secondary schools were giving satisfactory or good value for money, according to the report based on Office for Standards in Education inspections carried out last year.
But for many schools, especially the one in ten schools failing to make the grade, it may be less clear what exactly is meant by value for money - and how it can be achieved.
School inspectors are given detailed guidance on how to come to a judgment. Put simply, says OFSTED's head of inspection quality, Peter Matthews, they have to consider whether a school is doing its job of teaching children effectively and balance that against the cost of the operation. The inspectors have to decide if the school is cost-effective.
The guidance given to inspectors on how to conduct this exercise explains that a school's value for money relates the educational standards achieved and the quality of education provided to its income, taking account of any appropriate contextual factors and using comparison with similar schools as available.
A checksheet presents a scale of one to seven for factors including pupils' socio-economic background and attainment on entry to the school. The inspectors can tick the relevant boxes to help make their judgments. They can then compare these with their assessment - also made on scales of one to seven - of the school's outcomes in terms of pupils' attainment, attitudes, behaviour and personal development.
The inspectors can compare the input with the outcomes. A school giving the very best value for money, the guidance explains, would be judged to be at the unfavourable end of the scale for contextual factors - its pupils would come from the most deprived backgrounds and the unit costs low, but its results would be relatively good.
This means that a school in a typically leafy suburb may achieve consistently good academic results. But closer analysis of the resources going into the school, including, perhaps, generous contributions from parents and local businesses, and the pupils' progress, might reveal a much less favourable picture.
Conversely, a school in a poor neighbourhood may be giving very good value for money because it is providing the best possible education given limited resources and pupils from relatively deprived homes.
"The inspectors have to remind themselves of the educational level of the intake and what kind of community the school is in," Mr Matthews explains. "They then look at the standards the pupils have achieved and their attitudes and behaviour. They also look again at the judgments they have made about the quality of the teaching. All of that amounts to a judgment about how effective the school is. They then look at the school's costs. If the school has low unit costs and the pupils have done well, it is obviously providing good value for money.
"But on the other hand if its standards could be much higher and unit costs are above average, it would be judged as providing poor value for money, unless there are other factors involved like high salary costs because of the age of the staff. It's a question of balancing effectiveness against costs."
But how can a school make sure it is providing value for money? Ofsted's advice in recent years has focused on the idea of the development planning cycle, in which objectives and priorities are clearly identified and their implementation monitored and evaluated. Systematically following the cycle enables the school to carry out a regular assessment of whether it is succeeding.
Ofsted's booklet Managing Financial Resources Effectively in Schools, published last year, made the connection between good management and sound finances: well-managed schools have well-managed budgets, it said. They have a clear sense of purpose and the ability to direct resources to precisely-defined ends, and always with a sharp focus on the key activities of teaching and learning.
Such schools look ahead, set clear targets and are realistically aware of costs. They have access to reliable forecasting and financial data. And they use the flexibility and independence offered by delegated budgets.
Spending patterns varied widely, according to Ofsted's research. Money spent employing teachers, for example, varied from 55 per cent to 83 per cent of total spending in primary schools and between 60 per cent and 77 per cent in secondaries.
But even in generally well-managed schools, initiatives often failed to produce the expected benefits, usually because schools were not monitoring and evaluating their spending closely enough. And in several schools, the emphasis was on short-term affordability rather than long term desirability, and investment was not sufficient to sustain an initiative.
In one primary school, for example, it was decided to invest heavily in computers and software to develop information technology across the curriculum. It brought about rapid improvements in the quality of teaching and learning, but this in itself produced demands for better classroom resources. Then wear and tear on the expensive computer equipment became a problem. There was a danger of the investment being wasted, according to OFSTED, because it could not be maintained.