Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Pandora's box?

Cash box

The latest BESA survey of school spending in England shows confidence faltering in three-year funding plans, worries over vocational education resources and the impact of Every Child Matters beginning to make inroads into spending. Julie Nightingale reports.

Hopes that three-year funding agreements would offer greater financial stability for schools have taken a knock in an annual survey by the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) of 1,000 schools, which indicates that confidence in the arrangements is falling.

Asked what impact setting budgets over three years has had on spending decisions and forward planning, 70 per cent of secondary schools were positive about the change in 2006-07.

However, the proportion fell to 57 per cent for 2007-08. One factor cited by some was the fear that falling rolls would lead to cuts in their funding which they could not yet foresee.

The survey also found that schools would rather have fewer pots of money dedicated to specific initiatives and more freedom to allocate funds to suit the circumstances of their school, rather than to line up with government agendas.

"Three-year budgets seem like the answer to give stability and the ability to plan long-term, but on the ground, the reality is more difficult," says Ray Barker, director of BESA. "The call for consolidation (of funding sources) and time, in the light of constant change, seems to come out very clearly."

The findings strike a chord with Sandy Woodcock, bursar at Ribston Hall High School in Gloucester. While she welcomes the theory that three-year funding agreements should put school budgeting plans on a more certain foundation, the benefits have been slow to come through in practice, she says.

"I hoped that it would help but, in reality, the information we are receiving is so sketchy and you can't base a budget forecast on unknowns," she says. "We need more accurate information about what our spending is going to be.

"In the first week of February I had no idea of what our 2008-09 budget will be. We have vague figures from the local authority and they are only for this year. There's no chance of looking two to three years ahead."

John Ryan, bursar at Fairfield High School in Bristol also worries that the three-year funding agreements fails to take account of the impact of fluctuating student numbers. "It is hard enough doing a one-year plan with any accuracy. By year three it becomes impossible - how many teacher or support staff are going to leave in that period? What are the changes to the roll? Effectively you will have to have a three-year rolling programme, where year two is always updated to become year one."

Vying for subject resources

Elsewhere, the survey found that 94 per cent of secondary schools allocate all or part of their resource budgets directly to subject areas or departments. All total, this amounts to just under half (49 per cent) of the total school budget. As such, subject coordinators and department heads controlled a collective chequebook worth 261m in 2007-08.

Vocational provision is the area in which most schools feel they are under-equipped. Fifty-six per cent felt they lacked teaching resources in the 2007-08 survey, though the figure had fallen slightly from 64 per cent in 2006-07.

Generally, 86 per cent of schools felt they had adequate or better teaching resources for Key Stages 3 and 4 for 2007-08.

For Key Stage 3 in 2007-08, schools made maths and ICT their priorities whereas, for 2008-09, they plan to spend more on English and ICT. Modern foreign languages in particular has suffered: ranked as third (of nine) most important spending priority in 2007-08, it slips back to sixth for 2008-09.

At Key Stage 4, slightly more emphasis was put on sciences and design and technology in 2007-08, while English/literacy and maths appear to be taking a back seat, relatively speaking. However, in plans for 2008-09, money seems to be switching back to English and maths but away from ICT.

Maggie Etherington, bursar at Newstead Wood School for Girls in Orpington, agrees "200 per cent" with the findings on vocational spending. In line with the survey findings, Newstead Wood is also spending more on ICT at Key Stage 3 as e-learning and use of online resources is increasingly involved in all subject teaching.

Sandy Woodcock says the finding on vocational spending in particular mirrors her situation. As a grammar school, Ribston Hall has not made practical skills and work-related training a priority hitherto and has found it challenging even to deliver the practical aspects of the curriculum commitment to enterprise, especially at Key Stage 4, she says. "A lot of the things that we might want to do are very expensive. It can cost 1,000 a day to put on an enterprise event."

Spending on MFL is also less strong. "There are some concerns about how the languages curriculum will go in the future so departments are reluctant to invest money in new resources when they are not sure what the future is going to hold," she says.

John Ryan paints a similar picture in that vocational learning is not top of the school's priority list. Otherwise, his school slightly bucks the trend by continuing to make both English and maths spending priorities at KS3 and 4.

"English is a priority due to the number of EAL students we have in the school - 247 out of 934," he says. "Maths is up there because they tend to lead on innovation."

Rising expectations from ECM

This year, for the first time, schools were surveyed on how the Every Child Matters agenda is affecting budget plans. More than 75 per cent of secondary schools believed ECM had meant extra costs for 2007-08.

More than half thought support staff costs would account for most extra spending, 41 per cent expected additional demand from learning resources and security and safety were cited by a third of schools.

Sandy Woodcock said spending to fulfil ECM obligations had definitely risen. "In particular, our costs on the pastoral care side and the wellbeing of students have risen as the demand has become much greater. Year group heads who are responsible for pastoral care are finding that there are more and more students with problems to deal with.

"We employ a counsellor in school for one day a week to take the pressure off our year heads and we could fill her time over and over again - and she is not cheap. There is no general provision for any counselling service that we have been able to access."

John Ryan believes Every Child Matters has had less of an impact thus far than other agendas, such as workforce remodelling. "We were already doing most of the things that the ECM agenda calls for. The one thing we do now is to spend more on CRB checks."

At Newstead, Maggie Etherington points to an increasing number of calls on the school's hardship fund in the last 18 months. "Eighty per cent of requests are through our curriculum activities for all age groups. We no longer receive a government grant for this fund, as it was deleted from out budget two years ago, so the school raises money itself to pay for these activities."

With all indications that education budgets will continue to be squeezed over the coming 18 months, it is highly likely that schools will have to continue searching for creative and innovative ways raising funds and making existing budgets go even further.

Julie Nightingale is a freelance education writer.

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