It’s emerged that successful bids in the last round of Condition Improvement Fund applications have come with unexpected strings attached.
To get the cash for their projects, heads have to agree to a visit from a school resource management advisor (SRMA), have their finance and operations pored over, and act on any recommendations around how they can make their day-to-day funding go even further.
Some say that this undermines academy autonomy, or is further evidence of overreach by the Department for Education.
I disagree. I’m as big a fan as they come of freedom for schools, but this condition doesn’t feel overly onerous or restrictive to me.
Let’s remind ourselves of the situation in schools right now, and what SRMAs actually do.
It’s not about cost-cutting, but finding ways heads can free up money in one part of the budget so it can be put to better use elsewhere
There isn’t a day that goes by when people in the school system complain that there isn’t enough money for people to do all that is asked of them.
Whether it’s sourcing provision that used to be provided by children’s services, or meeting the recommended pay rises for staff, there is no doubt that things have become more stretched in recent years.
And while it seems that the education budget is soon going to be a big winner under a new prime minister, practically and morally, heads have to make sure they achieve the biggest possible bang for every buck they get.
Every pound that goes into schools is a pound taken from a taxpayer’s pocket for the public good. It could be spent elsewhere – on health, elderly care, defence, the police, and so on – so we’ve got to make every effort to make the most of what we get for education.
The honest truth, though, is that the vast majority of heads are – rightly – educational experts, and are not operational or procurement gurus. It’s why they’ll have a business manager or someone similar on their own team to oversee those sort of things.
However, it’s always helpful to have someone look over things from an independent, external perspective. We do it all the time on the education side of things – peer reviews, mutual visits, and so on – and that’s why I’m pretty relaxed about the DfE asking schools to do the same on the operational and financial side too.
SRMAs are drawn from the school business leader community. They’re experts at getting institutions in good order – because of their own experience and the additional training they’ve been put through.
They can draw on contacts and practice from across the whole sector regarding approaches to staffing, procurement, contracts, and so on. It’s not about cost-cutting, but finding ways heads can free up money in one part of the budget so it can be put to better use elsewhere.
Who wouldn’t want to do that? It means pupils get the very best education possible given the resources available. It also means that over time the sector will build up an evidence base of effective ways that schools can do things better or more efficiently, so that whatever happens to the education budget in future years, we’ll all be better placed to manage things.
To my mind then, telling schools who are receiving significant capital funding for projects to have a free review of how they allocate their existing funding is not an infringement of autonomy, but a reasonable ask. As one head in receipt of a successful CIF bid said to me today: “Why wouldn’t I want someone to spot ways that we can do things better? It might mean more money for teachers or textbooks.”
That feels like the best way to approach the issue of efficiency in schools in both this situation, and more generally.