Reform at any cost?

You may just have noticed that there have been a few changes mooted for the school system over the past four years. To list just a  few of them, we have:

  • Changes to Teacher pay
  • Removal of QTS requirement
  • National Curriculum freedoms
  • No re-sits
  • Return to Linear
  • Changes to AS/A Levels
  • Accountability changes
  • Mass academisation

Now, it is obvious that the intended reason for all of these changes is to improve, in some defined way, the school system and the outcomes of the students within it. Some of them (nearly) everyone would agree with, some of them (virtually) no-one agrees with, and there are many shades in-between. They each seek to address different issues within the system. Whatever our views of each individual aspect of the reforms, it is true to say that we won’t really know the true impact for a considerable period of time.

However, ignoring the intended consequence of these changes it is possible to see another benefit (?) of each one.

Like many involved with schools my mind is turning rapidly to the issue of budgets and how they are going to be severely constrained in the coming years. Despite being told that “school budgets are protected”, anyone who has any proximity to a real school budget will understand the deftness of wording that goes into this description (rough translation – it’s a bit of a fib). And it is only going to get more difficult.

The most recent National School Census return (January 2014) shows that there are currently 2,735,300 children aged 11-16 in the maintained school system. Coming up behind them there are currently 2,927,425 aged 6-10 in the primary sector waiting to replace them. This will represent an increase of 192,125 children when this works through (although immigration is likely to increase this figure even further). Using a rough figure of £4.5k per child this means that even to stay still an increase of nearly £900m is required in secondary school budgets nationally. This will represent a cost increase for KS3/4 at students of around 7% over the five years with a similar increase in primary costs. Changes to school leaving age regulations will also create a cost pressure. All this is occurring at a time when it is very clear that the overall budget envelop, whilst ostensibly being protected, is not actually going to increase.

In short, there is a funding black-hole looming on the horizon. If you use this lens to view the reforms through, then some of them make a lot more sense.

Take teachers pay. For every (approx) 400 teachers who don’t move up a scale point (or cross into UPS) the system level saving is around £1m. Doesn’t seem like a huge amount, but scale it up by the number of teachers who will be affected and run it across ten years then you are talking serious money. And because of the budget squeeze many teachers will be affected. Many school will not want to implement PRP, but when staffing costs equate to 80% of their budget they will have no choice.

It is easy to see how money will be saved by reducing re-sits and by the de-modularisation of the exam system, both at GCSE and post-16, through reduced exam fees. I also expect that due to the changes in accountability measures the number of entries per student will fall further, with less students taking10, 12 or even 15 GCSEs. The focus will be on quality across the cohort. This is a good thing, and will also save considerable money in exam entry fees. Some of this will feel like marginal tinkering around the edges, but over time, at the system level, the costs add up.

Curriculum freedoms? This might seem like a bit of a stretch, but as numbers in the system expand, there will be more pressure on specialist facilities. Need a couple of extra general purpose classrooms? Well, no one really needs to do woodwork any more, do they? Lets convert that big area into two classrooms and move over to a Product Design based curriculum. Bung in a couple of 3D printers and everyones happy. There are other examples.

And lets not forget the really big savings to be made through acadamisation. Earlier this year DfE was offering up to £125,000 for primaries to form groups of up to 8 schools in an academy trust. I have seen lots of such groups forming. Now, primary budgets aren’t large, individually. But put eight of them together then you have some real money to work with. If all primaries did this, and could save 2.5% of costs in doing so, then you could see savings in the hundreds of millions of pounds a year. Which is why a maximum investment by DfE (if all primaries converted) of £250m is a wise move.

The other things that acadamisation allows the DfE to do is to push down the budgetary control to the individual trusts. If they don’t control costs then, like any other business (sorry, that’s what they are, and I’m not using it as a pejorative) they will go bust and someone else will take them over. Unlike the old days when we would sit around and wait for Gordon Brown to announce his annual lump sum hand out to schools. That is not going to happen any more. Not for some time at least.

It is possible to stretch this idea even further and think about the long term savings that might be might be the introduction of greater levels of technology (à la Rocketship Education and other such models). But that’s a whole other blog post! There are also savings to be made in the encouraging of schools to run longer days. The cost of achieving child-care through this route is cheaper than other methods.

I suspect that it is just a happy coincidence that all these changes (could) end up as money-saving opportunities rather than any grand conspiracy. I suppose that it is much easier to sell any reform to both DfE and the Treasury if the answer to the question “What is it going to cost?” can be answered with “Nothing, its actually going to save you money over the long term”. Also, I am in no way suggesting that saving money is a bad thing. Quite the contrary.

I am sure that I have missed some other saving areas, and it is also quite possible (likely) that there are hidden costs that I have missed. Remember, I am looking at savings at the system level here, rather than for any given school.

Of course, they are not really going to be savings, just opportunities not to run a deficit budget.

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3 thoughts on “Reform at any cost?

  1. Thanks Mike. I’m looking forward to the post on Rocketship. In which it strikes me there are two linked components:

    1. the formalisation of pedagogy in a branded programme (something that academisation will encourage);
    2. the use of ed-tech to support the more active, flexible approach to pedagogy that this implies (programs to support the programme).

    I would also stress what I think you might just acknowledge – that saving money and raising effectiveness are two sides of the same coin, so long as you keep the money saved in education. Education did very well under New Labour on the money front. Maybe the retrenchment that is brought about by austerity provides an opportunity to make sure that money is being targeted effectively.

    1. Generally, I would agree. I would however say that such efficiencies (improvements in effectiveness) would more likely be achieved if there was more openness and less stealth around the issue. Starting the conversation with “your budgets are protected” does not put people in the right frame of mind to implement efficiencies.

      Also, it is less easy to recognise as an efficiency something that simply enables you to stand still.

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