With chancellor Hammond’s autumn budget offering schools a one-off payment of £50,000 for “little extras” but no increase in revenue funding, a headteacher and a chief operating officer debate whether there are still areas where schools can make efficiency savings.

Sean Maher is headteacher of a secondary academy in Richmond, West London. Micon Metcalfe is chief operating officer at a five-school multi-academy trust in South London.

Can schools make more efficient use of their funds?

Sean Maher: One of my major concerns is, when you talk about efficiencies, I wonder what this word really means and at what point it becomes a euphemism for cuts.

Micon Metcalfe: I think one of the problems is, there aren’t many people in the sector who’ve been through dreadful funding before. There’s been enough money. And when you’re dealing with pupils, you want to do the best for them, so we find it difficult to make really tough decisions around provision or staffing.

SM: When I started teaching in 2000 under the Blair government, they were throwing money at education, there was almost more than you could spend – that had gone too far the other way. I think all headteachers accept there is not an endless pot of money, but it’s about providing the best education possible for children.

With council budgets now being slashed to pieces, and the costs that keep coming in behind the scenes, such as national insurance and pensions, we can’t continue to provide the level of education that is expected, as well as prop up services that have been cut from councils, like mental health.

We probably can make a few efficiencies, do some shared buying and save £30,000 per school, but that’s not going to solve the problem.

If the government says ‘this is the funding you’re going to get’, we have to cut our cloth accordingly

What spending can schools feasibly cut?

SM: Let’s define the parameters we want from a school. If all we want is for children to get good English, maths, science, a few other subjects and go home, then fine – the funding levels are probably about right. If we want music, drama and extra-curricular activities, pastoral support and community engagement, we have to put more money into the system.

MM: You’re right to say we need to define what schools do, and schools have picked up a lot of additional costs. But if government says “this is the funding you’re going to get”, we have to cut our cloth accordingly and be transparent about what that means.

With regard to arts and specialist subjects, that’s where multi-academy trusts begin to have an edge. There are loads of quick wins in a five-school trust in terms of back office and contracts, but longer term we’d have to look at deeper collaboration between the schools – that’s when you can generate the savings.

In some larger trusts, you’re beginning to see specialists teaching a group of schools co-located on one site. It’s the expectation of the government that multi-academy trusts are developing ways of delivering these subjects in efficient ways.

I go into a lot of schools and none of them meet the perfect ratio the government is promoting, this 0.78 contact time they say you can achieve through curriculum-led financial planning. And it is feasible – some of the big trusts are doing it, albeit through a dictated model of curriculum that you’d want to unpick, to make sure subjects aren’t being left behind.

SM: We need to be careful. Schools have been good stewards of public money, and have been good at cutting their cloth accordingly, particularly since 2015. They have made tough decisions to ensure children get the best possible experience. Not many schools are mismanaging their budgets, so it comes back to: should we be making educational decisions, based on the best interests of children, or financial decisions, based on tighter fiscal policy. I believe it should be the former.

We talk about schools having to manage their budgets efficiently, but it’s alright for the government to throw millions at some ideological project, like maths hubs or the free school programme, where they’ve paid over £30 million to procure some of the sites.

Should schools be generating their own income?

SM: We generate £220,000–£250,000 of our own income, through site rentals and so on. If we didn’t, the only way I’d be able to survive is by cutting teachers and support staff.

MM: Schools have a big community asset they can generate income from. And academy trusts are charities, so there’s nothing to stop us doing development and fundraising work. But you are then starting to say that part of education is funded through philanthropy, not through taxation.

Are teachers paid enough?

SM: If we want the best professional workforce in the country teaching our children, we have to pay them proper money. I have two teachers who want to leave because they cannot afford to buy a house.

MM: I think London is a particular case. If you go to the north-east, for example, teachers will be able to afford housing, and the differential between professional salaries and teacher salaries won’t be the same – we have to look at area costs.

We also have to recognise that the teaching workforce has exceptional non-pay benefits, such as the defined benefits pension scheme and the sickness absence scheme, so you have to build that into the overall remuneration.

The government can throw millions at some ideological project

Do schools have too many support staff?

SM: Learning support staff are fantastic and the engine room of so many schools, but they earn very little.

Pre-2015, my school reduced learning support staffing and cut back-office staff. But since 2015, we’ve had an increase of £400,000 in national insurance and pensions, the unfunded one per cent pay rise – about £100,000 – and had the education services grant removed, worth £138,000. So we’ve had to find £638,000 extra – which is a 9.1 per cent budget cut.

MM: It’s true money has gone from the budgets. So schools need to look at their overall staffing. With learning support staff, there’s a notional element for high-needs, and schools have to fund the first £6,000 of any support given to a child, so schools will need some SEND teaching assistants. Schools need to be clear with local authorities and transparent with parents about how much the top-up funding provides and how much you can continue to take from the general educational provision to fund high needs.

SM: There’s a disincentive for schools to take children with complex learning needs because they know they won’t get the sort of funding they need to properly support that person.

MM: There is a problem around high-needs funding. However, if you look at staffing, the workforce has grown substantially, and we should try to understand why. If we’re brave enough to focus on what data we’re collecting and pare it back to the absolute minimum necessary, we could cut out quite a lot of workload and you wouldn’t need staff doing all those tasks.

SM: I agree. But if we’re talking about efficiencies in terms of getting rid of useless bureaucracy, that change has to come from the Department for Education.