School budgets are protected for the time being, but the consensus among heads and union leaders is that the next few years will be tough. "There are difficult times ahead," warns Malcolm Trobe, policy director at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL). "Reducing budgets this year wouldn't really have been feasible, but everything still points to future cuts."
In the past, heads have dealt with cuts by making efficiency savings or by falling back on reserves. These days, there is not a lot of slack.
"In recent years, schools have become more efficient, and there's not too much more they can do," says Christine Dickson, managing director of the Buckinghamshire-based Centre for Education and Finance Management (CEFM), which offers financial advice to schools. "Many heads have reduced their balances because they were worried about being made to pay money back."
In other words, future cuts are likely to hit hard. It will not be enough to limit use of the photocopier or remind teachers to switch off the lights. Instead, savings will affect core areas such as staffing and the curriculum.
A recent ASCL survey suggested that 63 per cent of heads think cuts will lead to larger class sizes, making redundancies likely. "Staffing accounts for about 80 per cent of a school's budget," says Mr Trobe. "So it's an area that heads will look at. There is no way round that."
Jobs expert John Howson says that support staff and secondary teachers are the ones most likely to find their jobs on the line. "Support staff always seem to be first to go," he says. "And secondary schools are suffering from falling rolls. Even without cuts, 3,000 posts were lost last year."
Those at the top of the pay scale may be asked to take early retirement: replacing two classroom teachers at the top of the pay spine with two newly qualified teachers will save a school about pound;30,000 a year. But teachers of minority subjects are also vulnerable. "You should certainly make an effort to push your subject if it doesn't have a large take-up," says Professor Howson, director of Education Data Surveys, part of TSL Education. "Or show that you can teach other subjects."
To help protect jobs in the future, schools need to ensure their current finances are in good shape, but that doesn't necessarily mean squirreling money away.
"Building up a surplus by delaying purchases can give a false impression and might actually invite funding cuts," explains Mr Trobe. So should heads take the opposite approach and spend while they can? "Not necessarily. This is a good time to press ahead with building projects, because the recession has brought down prices. But don't replace ICT equipment just for the sake of it - you will get a cheaper price and higher spec next year."
It also makes sense to look at ways of bringing in extra money through grants and donations. CEFM runs fundraising courses for schools, although Ms Dickson warns against seeing it as an instant solution.
"It takes time and effort, and right now money is tight in the private sector. But I can understand heads wanting to explore every option because there is so much uncertainty at the moment. By the autumn the situation should hopefully be clearer."
What schools can do
- Consider a fundraising campaign, linked to a specific project.
- Push ahead with building plans.
- Don't defer necessary spending.
- Review your curriculum model.
- Promote your school: more pupils means more core funding.
- CEFM offers a range of financial services to schools. Visit www.cefm.co.uk.
- Educational Finance Solutions is a company that helps schools with budgeting. They also have a database of competitive suppliers. Visit www.efsolution.co.uk.