Outrage at public sector cuts is now so routine, that it’s hard to feel any authentic anger towards the government. But ire, in this instance, is appropriate. With school funding set to remain flat for the next two years despite inflation, schools are fated to have to make their own cuts – most worryingly, to members of staff. In such circumstances, civic action is necessary to lobby the government to reverse its position on school funding. But, in the inevitable interim, schools can help themselves by seeking out innovative ways to cut costs whilst retaining staff and improving student outcomes.

School Funding – A National Crisis?

Despite Damian Hinds’ misleading assertion, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has claimed that school funding is set to remain flat for the next two years. The next funding injection of £1.3 billion may constitute an increase in cash terms but in real terms, given inflation and increasing pupil numbers, amounts to inertia on the issue.

This funding stagnation is coupled with changes incumbent in the new National Funding Formula (NFF), whose introduction last year has amplified financial pressure on schools. Research by the Education Policy Institute has emphasised that the NFF has resulted in huge losses in real terms for some schools, often in some of the most vulnerable communities in the country. EPI forecasting further suggests that 40% of schools will not be able to meet their requirement for a 1% pay increase for teaching staff given the constraints of the NFF.

Given these compounding factors, it should come as no surprise that the EPI’s updated report recently found that over two thirds of LEA-Maintained secondary schools are spending more than they have, running up large deficits. In many instances, these deficits have been developing for two or more years. Primary schools are, on average, faring better in relation to their spending but the figures still show in an increase in the number in deficit for the year 2017-18.

Schools are caught between a rock and a hard place. They want to avoid instigating a cascade of increasing class sizes, teacher stress and the consequent decline in quality of teaching. Equally schools surely want to avoid miring themselves in financial oblivion.

Careful and calculated action is required. But what actions are open to schools in such circumstances?

What’s a school to do? School Improvement in the age of Austerity

Few schools are taking these hits to their funding sitting down. While many imagine them etherised to a table, mindlessly running up deficits, the best schools are strategizing how to ensure their staff and students aren’t victims of petty political procedure.

There are two strands to these approaches –

1) The Civic Action Approach

2) The Cost-Cutting Approach

Its important to note that this isn’t an either/or strategy – the best schools are adopting both the Civic and Cost-Cutting Approach in tandem to cover all their bases. Let’s unpack what these approaches look like.

The Civic Action Approach

Teaching has traditionally been a civically militant profession, with the history of the NUT and NAHT extending back into the 19th century. The apex of their power came between the 1940’s and 1970’s, when politicians often grumbled that the unions effectively ran the Department for Education. In this age, unions were able to push through increases to pay, improvement in working rights for women and the unifying social cohesion project of the state comprehensive school.

Under the assault of Thatcher, the 1980’s hosted an atrophy of union power. Nevertheless, the message of the age before is that collective civic action can achieve genuine change for schools and teachers. As such, if there are changes the profession believe must be made, then it is a moral imperative to pursue these changes through the typical methods of civic dispute. These include:

  • Writing to and lobbying local MPs for action. You can even write to or e-mail the Secretary of State for Education directly about the issue.
  • Signing petitions, of which there are many in circulation, to indicate your opposition. When
  • Organise meetings for parents (and students) on the cuts and their impact, motivating them to engage in further civic action.
  • Join national networks of discussion, allowing national facilitation of collective action.
  • Follow us on Twitter, Facebook and our blog to get the latest developments on school funding. Knowing what you’re opposing is half the battle.

The Cost-Cutting Approach

“Its all very well marshalling at the barricades”, chides the pragmatist, “But how do I stop my school running into the ground while I wait for the government to change its mind?”.

The concern is a valid one  and has been one ricocheting around my mind for the past couple of weeks. Educators are pulled in two different directions by apparently conflicting duties – their duty to grow and develop their sector for a better future but also to ensure that those presently entangled within their institutions get the best they can out of the system.

The challenge this presents is one that hard-nosed visionaries have faced throughout history. Immanuel Kant, the great philosopher of the modern age, points out in his essay “What is Enlightenment?” that an Enlightened individual bravely pursues truth, brushing off the burdens of dogma and orthodoxy. That truth may be about the mechanics of the universe, or it may be about the optimal design for social institutions. Either way, there is an imperative for them to find truth.

But this truth is in the domain of discourse – it is what we talk about, argue for, whose realisation we pursue through diplomatic and democratic means. In the meantime, the Enlightened individual meets their duties and obligations to the institutions in their present incarnation. It may very well be that we want things to be different and our work to realise those differences is justified. But in the end, we can only work with and within the institutions we have, not with those we wish we had.

The point, as Kant would have it, is that schools need to adjust their fiscal behaviour alongside pursuing civic action to increase school funding. There is nothing contradictory about this position – it is the height of Enlightened pragmatism, in step with the thinking of one of the architects of the modern age. In fact, it may very well be that reduced funding presents some exciting opportunities for schools.

Independent film makers often talk about how small budgets force them to be conscious and creative with their spending, in stark contrast to the bloated splurging on the production of a blockbuster. It’s where game-changing transformations such as tracking shots and Cinema Verite come from.  Schools face a similar opportunity – they can meticulously identify areas to create efficiency using new, alternative solutions.

The biggest source of expenditure for schools is staff – typically over 70% of their budget. Broadly, this is appropriate – staff are a school’s greatest resource, so should merit the highest cost. However, there are numerous auxiliary aspects of staffing where expenditure is often excessive. As such, these areas are prime for conscientious adjustment, as motivated by present funding pressures.

Spending on educational recruitment agencies and advertising on jobs boards are an enormous expense for schools. A cursory look at available data here gives a sense of the magnitude of the issue. But, many rejoinder, schools in the midst of a recruitment crisis have few other options.

This was probably true, up until relatively recently. A service such as Teacher Booker now presents a radically cost-effective human resource management platform for schools. From a single interface, schools can now peruse teachers in their local area who have been through a rigorous vetting and interviewing process to find suitable candidates for roles in their school – from emergency cover to long-term and permanent positions. They can also construct their own local talent pools, shared with partner schools, to establish a stock of approved teachers. All of this for a fraction of the cost of spending on agencies.

Teacher Booker’s maximisation of ease, efficiency and cost-effectiveness is the sort of innovation that the present age of school cuts demands. Enlightened school leaders can adopt it and save thousands whilst simultaneously engaging in the struggle for more school funding. If such funding is secured, then schools will be doubly better off, having discovered the optimal solution to their resource management issues alongside now having more money than before to spend on the thing they value most – their students.

Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for updates on teacher recruitment!