CPD firms struggle as funding squeeze shifts landscape

Two major school membership organisations have posted losses as schools tighten their belts in the face of budget restraints.

One of the companies has scaled back the number of conferences it runs, with staff now increasingly sent into schools, while another continuing professional development provider was forced to run a training camp over a weekend because of the “increased challenge” for teachers to “secure release” from the classroom.

Where members don’t renew [their membership], the majority will say it’s financial reasons

The PiXL Club, which provides “strategic creativity” to boost results among its nearly 3,000 member schools, has suffered two years of finance woes.

Annual accounts published last month – the first time a full set of accounts has been published as it is now considered a large company – show a £1 million operating deficit last year.

PiXL launched a major financial overhaul and its 2016-17 accounts had to be restated to show a previously unreported £1.5 million operating deficit.

New directors have overseen internal cuts – such as cheaper venues and less food at conferences – and it’s now on the way to posting a surplus of at least £600,000 this year, the firm said.

But the company flags the funding climate, stating in its accounts that the “schools we work with continue to operate within tight budgetary constraints resulting from government funding and the economic climate”.

Christine Hardman, a PiXL director with an overview of finance, told Schools Week: “Where members don’t renew [their membership], the majority will say it’s financial reasons. We have been absolutely privileged by the fact that our members continue to grow – but we’re very mindful about increasing membership fees significantly.”

SSAT, the schools, students and teachers’ network, has also been struggling. Its most recent accounts show an after-tax loss of £532,450 last year, compared with a £6,202 profit in 2017.

The accounts say this was down to the “financial constraints of school budgets, a reluctance of schools to release staff for day events and programmes, and schools wanting training to be more bespoke and delivered in-house”.

Analysis of financial returns by the data specialists SchoolDash in January found that schools’ spending on CPD had plummeted by £23 million, from £259 million in 2015-16 to £235.8 million in 2016-17 – a drop of almost 9 per cent.

Experts have previously said the figures may also reflect schools and trusts turning to free, in-house training to support their staff, particularly under the multi-academy trust structure.

To meet the changed demand, SSAT is providing more “bespoke” training for schools and academy trusts, with the number of conferences “reduced considerably”.

At PTI, a school member charity, the number of teachers attending its events fell from 1,388 to 1,228 last year.

The charity, which works with about 450 schools, says this was “driven largely by subject leadership programme members not attending their end of year day due to difficulties being released from school”.

The “increased challenge for teachers to secure release from school”, also forced it to last summer host a weekend residential.

PTI’s charitable activities also dropped by 15 per cent to £384,000. The fall was attributed to price discounting to “attract schools affected by budget cuts”.

Hardman added: “We’ve had to be very tight on our spending. There is the constraint on not putting our fees up, but we’ve had to be far more mindful to cost cutting – without cutting that service that we give schools.”

Directors’ pay seems unaffected. Accounts show the highest-paid director at PiXL got £187,700 last year, compared with £120,000 in 2017. The unnamed director has since left.

PiXL was criticised after a Schools Week investigation in 2015 revealed it urged school leaders to enter “vulnerable” pupils into a fast-tracked ICT qualification, taught in just three days, to ensure they achieved five A* to C grades.

Entries to the subject rocketed by more than 2,000 per cent in a year, but the government later pulled the qualification from league tables following gaming concerns.

PiXL’s accounts say its “reputation and appeal” has been built on “strategic creativity related to delivering improved outcomes for students, together with the development of character in all our young people”.

Hardman added: “We like to say that we scratch the itch and schools are valuing what we are doing.”

The government has previously said it its “committed to improving support and professional development for teachers at all stages of their career”, in particular through the new early career framework.