Schools

Details of schools’ £1.5m cost-cutting success story withheld

School board minutes suggest staff cuts were behind savings

School board minutes suggest staff cuts were behind savings

21 May 2022, 5:26

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The government will not reveal its cost-cutting advisers’ recommendations to balance the books at two Hackney schools held up as success stories of the controversial scheme.

School resource management advisers (SRMA) have found savings totalling £303 million after visiting around 1,000 schools and trusts since being set up in 2018 by then academies minister Lord Agnew.

Just £17 million of savings had been made six months after visits.

The Department for Education published a case study in March highlighting how advisers found savings totalling £1.5 million at Oldhill School and Children’s Centre and Our Lady’s High School, both in Hackney.

But neither the DfE, the schools nor Hackney council – which commissioned the visits – would release the reports following a Freedom of Information request.

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Dr Mary Bousted

The council said it was concerned that identifying the schools as “financially vulnerable” could negatively impact the settings, despite the DfE case study detailing they had a combined deficit of over £760,000.

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “If you’re going to say that if you get these cost-cutters in you can all save money, then there absolutely is an obligation to say how it is done.

“You can only judge the quality of their proposals by looking at what they’re proposing to cut.”

Board minutes hint at staff cuts

The case study said advisers recommended savings from “reorganising staff”, growing pupil numbers to increase funding and embedding integrated curriculum and financial planning. They visited the schools in October 2020.

But Our Lady’s school board minutes, from March 2021, suggest savings were down to cutting staff.

It states: “The main stages are an admin staff restructure and technical staff restructure. This is forecast to lead to savings of admin staff – £97k, technical staff – £55k.”

Elsewhere the minutes note: “There are some teachers leaving and these will not be replaced but work covered by existing staff. A teaching staff restructure will follow next year matching the new curriculum.”

Leaders acknowledge “there will be costs involved with redundancy and also the creation of some new posts in education support”.

The board minutes state that senior leaders acknowledge the cost-cutting recommendations are “difficult and will try to protect staff as much as possible.

“The key is to support the long-term sustainability of the school, and with this comes a high level of challenge.”

The minutes also show how leaders will “look to see where the school can potentially invest more in curriculum support staff but can’t allow this to jeopardise the budget recovery”.

Bousted said the reduction of staff levels was “a retrograde step” and the “real issue is the continued underfunding of education”.

Exposing ‘financial vulnerabilities’ could damage schools

Schools Week previously revealed that SRMAs had advised schools to replace experienced teachers with support staff and limit pupils’ lunch portions in a bid to save money.

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The DfE, Hackney council and Oldhill claimed that releasing the reports would inhibit “free and frank advice” being shared in such situations, including the exploration of potential funding shortfall solutions.

Hackney also claimed that exposing the “financial vulnerabilities” would be “counterproductive” to recovery and may deter families from sending children to the schools.

The DfE’s case study states that, in 2019-20, Oldhill and Our Lady’s had deficits of £536,000 and £225,000 respectively. Their financial troubles are likewise identified repeatedly in publicly available board minutes.

The Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA), the DfE’s funding arm, said sharing “sensitive” recommendations around staffing, capital and spending costs “may also have a deterrent effect”.

Councils and schools “may be less likely to share their experiences in the form of case studies” if SRMA reports were released, it added.

An FOI previously revealed that the government’s own research indicated more than half of schools reported the advisers did not identify new ways of saving money.



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