Caroline Flint

Standing up for Don Valley.

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Efficiency measures may threaten school improvements - Committee warns

Doncaster’s bid to improve school standards may be jeopardised by the squeeze on school budget’s over the next three years, warns Caroline Flint, after the latest inquiry by the Public Accounts Committee.

Doncaster’s schools face an 8% per pupil reduction in funding between 2014-15 and 2019-20.

 

The Committee highlights that across England schools had to find “efficiencies” to save £1.1billion in 2016-17; and will have to save a further £3billion up to 2019-20.

 

Said Caroline: “The Government’s efficiency target for schools is putting improved educational standards at risk at a time when Doncaster is working hard to raise standards across our schools.

 

“The Governments spends £39.1billion funding our schools. With rising pupil numbers cross the country, the increase in spending to £42.6billion by 2019-20 does not keep up with costs and inflation.  Far from having school budgets protected, our report shows a steady squeeze. 

 

“The Government estimates schools can save simply through better procurement, and more efficient use of teachers.  This appears to me to be wishful thinking.

 

“It is clear schools are expecting more from teachers; and further pressure simply risks a deterioration in quality, when Doncaster’s schools are working harder to raise standards across the board.

 

“The great worry here is that the Government is relying on Ofsted reports and exam results to monitor progress.  They have no other means of monitoring whether standards are suffering.  Once children have poor SATS or GCSE attainment falls it may be too late for those children or they face greater challenges to catch up.  The Government cannot ignore the impact.  They need to understand the pressures on our schools.”

 

In October 2016, Doncaster’s Education and Skills Commission reported with 30 recommendations for improving education and skills across the Borough.

 

The full press release from the Public Accounts Committee is below:

 

PAC: SCHOOL STANDARDS AT RISK FROM SIGNIFICANT FINANCIAL PRESSURES

 

DfE must prepare to intervene quickly if efficiency measures threaten damage, says Committee

 

School standards in England are at risk as schools are required to make savings during the most significant financial pressure since the mid-1990s, the Committee of Public Accounts warns today.  

In a new Report, the Committee concludes the Department for Education “does not seem to understand the pressures that schools are already under” and is not well-placed to act swiftly if efficiency measures threaten the quality of education and its outcomes. 

Funding per pupil is reducing in real terms and, if they are to manage within the funds available, mainstream schools in England must find efficiency savings rising from £1.1 billion in 2016-17 to £3 billion by 2019-20. 

The Department believes schools can save £1.3 billion through better procurement and the balance of £1.7 billion by using staff more efficiently. 

However, the Committee concludes: “The actions schools take are likely to increase teachers’ workload, with implications for recruitment and retention, and put at risk the quality of education.” 

It is concerned the Department does not seem to have a plan to monitor in real-time how schools are making savings and their impact, instead relying on existing information such as Ofsted inspections and exam results. 

The Report states: “These indicators are time lagged and we may not know the full impact on educational outcomes until 2021 when the new GCSE results come through. This will be too late for the children who are in school now.” 

The Committee raises concerns about the Education Funding Agency’s approach, which means it does not intervene as often as it should, and the Department’s savings estimates, which it finds do not properly consider the impact of policy changes on cost pressures – for example, curriculum changes that require new textbooks and materials. 

It also highlights the additional cost to schools of the new apprenticeship levy, the financial impact of which has not been set out by Government and from which schools “will only be able to benefit in a limited way”. 

The Committee warns that the Department does not seem to be learning from the experience of other sectors, “in particular from how over-ambitious efficiency targets in the NHS proved counter-productive”. 

Schools facing reduced spending power need to reconcile financial, workforce and quality expectations, says the Committee, and the Department must help them manage the risks. 

The Committee’s conclusions and recommendations are set out in detail below and in the attached Report. 

Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the PAC, said today: “Pupils’ futures are at risk if the Department for Education fails to act on the warnings in our Report. 

“It sets out more evidence of what increasingly appears to be a collective delusion in Government about the scope for further efficiency savings in public services. 

“Unrealistic efficiency targets imposed on the NHS, together with weak leadership from the centre, have caused long-term damage to the finances of NHS trusts struggling to meet increasing demand. 

“Government must not allow this to happen in schools but there are troubling similarities in its approach – similarities the Department for Education is unwilling to recognise. 

“It must not be deaf to the experiences of head teachers who, as we heard in evidence, have already had to make potentially damaging cuts in areas such as maintenance, teacher recruitment and pastoral services. 

“The Education Funding Agency’s record on intervention, as well as its failure to evaluate whether its interventions are helping schools to address financial risk, does not inspire confidence. 

“Government must take all necessary steps to ensure it can intervene quickly if action taken by schools to meet efficiency targets risks damaging standards. 

“That means properly monitoring in real-time performance as well as spending, making use of frontline indicators such as class sizes, the ratio of pupils to teachers and the breadth of the curriculum.

“Senior officials in the Department must ask themselves: what more can we do to help schools meet our targets? 

“Grand plans drawn up in Whitehall are dangerous if they are implemented without regard to real-world consequences and we will expect to see measures to address our concerns as a matter of urgency.” 

 

PAC REPORT SUMMARY 

Schools in England are now facing the most significant financial pressure since the mid-1990s.  

Funding per pupil is reducing in real terms. If they are to manage within the funds available, schools will have to find efficiency savings rising from £1.1 billion in 2016-17 to £3.0 billion (equivalent to 8% of the total budget) by 2019-20 because of costs which are outside their control such as pay rises, higher employer contributions to national insurance and the teachers’ pension scheme, and the apprenticeship levy.  

They will also have to cope with the consequences of reductions in the Education Services Grant and the cost of implementing other policy changes, such as changes to the curriculum and assessment.  

Drawing on a desk-based benchmarking exercise, the Department believes schools can save £1.3 billion through better procurement and the balance of £1.7 billion by using staff more efficiently.  

Schools have already been making savings in a number of ways, but the Department considers they can save more, such as through better energy deals.  

However, staff account for three-quarters of schools’ spending, and savings here will be harder to achieve without detrimental effects on the quality of education and educational outcomes.  

It is not clear how the Department will monitor both spending and performance so that it can intervene quickly where schools make efficiency savings in ways that risk causing damage.  

Without effective and timely monitoring of areas such as the breadth of the curriculum and class sizes, there is a real risk that the Department will not be able to prevent declining standards. 

CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

The Department for Education (the Department) does not have the necessary arrangements in place to identify, and therefore act, if the actions schools take to make efficiency savings threaten the quality of education and educational outcomes. The Department expects over half of the required savings (£1.7 billion by 2019-20) to come from schools using staff more efficiently. Schools spend half of their budgets on teachers, and have tended in the past to reduce the proportion of spending that goes on teaching staff faster than other categories. To reduce staff costs, schools are likely to increase teachers’ contact time and class sizes, rely more on unqualified staff and staff teaching outside of their specialism, and require head teachers and other senior staff to do more teaching. The head teachers who gave evidence told us that they plan to make savings by, among other things, dropping subjects and scaling back on school trips to avoid the cost of teaching cover. The actions schools take are likely to increase teachers’ workload, with implications for recruitment and retention, and put at risk the quality of education. The Department said that it will gain assurance that schools are achieving ‘desirable’ efficiency savings and that educational outcomes are being maintained from existing information, such as Ofsted inspections, key stage tests and exam results. However, these indicators are time lagged and we may not know the full impact on educational outcomes until 2021 when the new GCSE results come through. This will be too late for the children who are in school now. The Department does not seem to have a plan to monitor in real-time how schools are making savings and the impact on the education provided. Without this monitoring the Department will not be able to identify concerns and take action in a timely way.

 

Recommendation: The Department should develop and publish by the end of June 2017 a set of indicators, which it will monitor to gain assurance that the quality of education and the outcomes schools achieve are not being adversely affected by the need to make savings. These indicators might include the breadth of curriculum, class sizes and pupil-teacher ratios.

The Department does not seem to understand the pressures that schools are already under. The Department’s view that schools can make the necessary savings is drawn from its desk-based statistical benchmarking analysis that compared schools with different levels of spending but similar pupil characteristics and levels of attainment. The Department is developing guidance and support to help schools improve their financial management and make savings. However, the head teachers who gave evidence told us that the Department does not understand the budgetary pressures that they are facing. They reported that they have already made cuts in important areas and their ability to make further savings is limited. For example, they have already cut maintenance costs, reduced how much they spend on recruiting teachers and not updated IT equipment. They have also had to cut back on support staff, including counselling and other pastoral services, which provide valuable support for vulnerable students. These cuts are being made at a time when schools are expected to do more to look after the mental health of children and young people. We are concerned that the Department has not spoken enough to schools to understand what savings they can realistically make. Our report on training new teachers in June 2016 highlighted similar concerns about how the Department engages with schools. In response to that report, the Department accepted that it should set out when and how it would talk more to school leaders about the recruitment challenges they face and agreed to put in place arrangements for this from July 2017. 

 

Recommendation: The Department should build on the arrangements it is putting in place from July 2017 to speak to head teachers about the efficiency challenges they face, how useful they find the Department’s guidance and support, and what more the Department could do to help schools make savings.

The apprenticeship levy will be an additional cost for schools but they will only be able to benefit in a limited way from the funds. From April 2017, all employers with an annual pay bill of over £3 million must pay the apprenticeship levy to fund apprenticeship training. For schools, the levy will amount to a cost pressure worth 0.4% of the total core budget. The Department views the apprenticeship levy as an opportunity rather than a cost, as schools will be able to use the funds from the levy to increase the training available. However, schools have to use the funds within two years and the only way that schools can currently use apprentices is in back-office administrative roles, precisely the areas where the Department expects schools to make savings. The Department said that it plans to introduce a teaching apprenticeships scheme from September 2018 but agreed that it needed to avoid further complicating the routes into teaching.

 

Recommendation: The Government should set out by the end of June 2017 the financial impact of the apprenticeship levy on schools.

 

In calculating the £3 billion of required efficiency savings, the Department has not assessed the impact of all the cost pressures that the Government is placing on schools. While the Department must assess and fund extra costs for local authorities from new powers, duties and other government-initiated changes, it does not have to do the same for schools. The Department’s savings estimates do not take account of the cost implications for schools of its policy changes. We heard from head teachers, the National Union of Teacher and the National Governors’ Association examples of uncosted policy changes, for example curriculum changes that require new textbooks and learning materials. Head teachers and the National Association of Head Teachers also highlighted the withdrawal of the Education Services Grant, which funded the education services that local authorities provide to maintained schools and that academies provide for themselves. This funding will be phased out by 2018/19, saving £615 million per year. The Department has not yet completed its work to assess the impact on schools of withdrawing the Education Services Grant. It said that around £190 million of the money saved is expected to be returned to schools and local authorities to use for school improvement.

Recommendation: The Department should publish by the end of April 2017 the results of its work to assess the impact of withdrawing the Education Services Grant; and it should routinely assess and make public the cost implications of policy changes including curriculum and assessment changes.

 

The Education Funding Agency’s approach to oversight and intervention means it has not intervened in all cases where schools are at financial risk. The Education Funding Agency (the Agency) regards schools as at financial risk if, for example, they have persistent or excessive deficits. The way in which the Agency has applied its intervention criteria means it has not intervened as often or as early as it should have in local authorities with maintained schools at financial risk. For example, the Agency did not intervene in the Isle of Wight even though it was the local authority with the highest proportion of maintained schools in deficit in 2014-15 (13%). The Agency has agreed to adjust how it applies the criteria it uses to decide whether to intervene in local authorities and to consult local government on further changes to its approach. The Agency is also piloting a preventative approach to support academy trusts at risk of getting into financial difficulty and expects to implement the approach in full from March 2017. It undertook to speak to local government about the potential to use this preventative approach for the maintained school sector. The Agency has not evaluated whether its interventions are helping schools to address financial risk. The evidence indicates that its interventions may not always result in academy trusts successfully tackling the financial issues that led the Agency to take action in the first place. The Agency has now agreed to evaluate the effectiveness of its interventions on schools’ financial sustainability.

 

Recommendation: The Education Funding Agency should set out by the end of June 2017 how it will refine its approach to intervening with local authorities and academies, including how and when it will evaluate the effectiveness of its interventions.

 

Schools are now facing similar pressures to other sectors but the Department does not seem to be learning from this experience, in particular from how over-ambitious efficiency targets in the NHS proved counter-productive. In recent years, the Government has protected school funding compared with most other areas of public spending. However, schools are now entering a period of reduced spending power not experienced since the mid-1990s. This brings risks as schools seek to reconcile financial, workforce and quality expectations. The Department needs to help schools to manage these risks. We reported last month on the ever worsening state of NHS finances as trusts struggle to meet increasing demand for services while also attempting to achieve unrealistic targets for efficiency savings. Twice in 2016, in our reports on the sustainability and financial performance of acute hospital trusts and then on the supply of clinical staff, we reported how the unrealistic efficiency targets set for the NHS had caused long-term damage to trusts’ finances. NHS England and NHS Improvement do not dispute these points. For example, the focus on reducing staff costs in order to meet efficiency targets led to trusts consistently understating how many staff they would need and resulted in gaps in staffing - which then had to be filled with more expensive agency staff. The Department of Health had provided ineffective leadership and support, giving trusts conflicting messages about how to balance safe staffing with the need to make efficiency savings. We asked the Department about the risk that schools could end up in a similar position to the NHS, but the Department said that it was not in a position to comment on the NHS. We are concerned that the Department does not seem to recognise the similarities and the opportunity to learn lessons.

 

 Recommendation: The Department should write to us by the end of June 2017 outlining how its approach to schools’ financial sustainability reflects lessons from the experience of other sectors, in particular the Department of Health and the NHS.

 

Please click HERE to read the full report

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