A union boss had branded the government as “shameful” for its declared victory on an “ambition” to cut £1 billion from school spending.
A recent report by the Department for Education says its “ambition to save £1 billion in non-staff spending has been achieved”.
A resource management strategy aimed at saving costs was launched in 2018.
It included a teacher vacancy website, supply agency reforms and an expansion of deals, benchmarking tools and regional buying hubs. It also put forward a school resource management adviser scheme, and highlighted controversial national funding formula reforms.
The study said the sector had spent more than £1.1 billion less on non-staff costs than “if schools had not changed their spending behaviour”.
It says non-staff spending fell from £12.7 billion in 2015-16, to £12.1 billion in 2019-20.
It argued that if there had not been changes, per-pupil spending would have stayed at £1,650, the 2015-16 level, and budgets would have spiralled as pupil numbers increased.
“Without a change it would have steadily risen to £13.3 billion,” it said.
Cuts mean spending ‘unsurprising’
But Luke Sibieta, a research fellow at the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), said the period had been one of budget cuts, making falling spending “entirely unsurprising”.
“To say this counts as a ‘saving’ is a bit cheeky. Schools would have had to make cuts somewhere.”
IFS research last year highlighted budget cuts “without precedent in post-war UK history”, with per-pupil spending falling 9 per cent in real terms in the decade to 2019.
Sibieta said not all cuts merited the term “saving”. “Finding a better deal on your energy or photocopying would definitely be savings, but cutting lunch portions or reduced training for staff would not be.”
Dr Mary Bousted, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said it was “shameful that the DfE is proud of the cuts”, highlighting rising class sizes.
A survey published by the NASUWT union last week found three-quarters of member teachers reported larger classes.
Data covers period of school closures
Jon Andrews, the head of analysis at the Education Policy Institute, said it was “unclear” whether the lower figures represented “genuine efficiency savings, or is simply cost-cutting that could end up having an adverse impact”.
Sibieta said the department’s decision to include 2019-20 figures was “eyebrow-raising”.
Academy data used in the study runs up to September 2020 – and therefore includes several months of partial school closures because of Covid.
Sibieta said this helped to cut energy, catering, book and training costs. Schools Week previously highlighted multimillion-pound improvements in some large trusts’ finances linked to such savings.
Susan Acland-Hood, the DfE’s permanent secretary, in January acknowledged “most types of non-staff spend” had fallen in 2019-20, more than offsetting extra Covid costs such as IT and cleaning.
DfE claims about its cost-cutting consultants have also proved contentious, with one telling a school to limit pupils’ lunch sizes. The government said it had saved £35 million in 2018, but later admitted to only £4.9 million.
A DfE spokesperson said the £1.1 billion reduction showed the sector’s “achievements” managing resources. It pledged to continue helping secure “best value” for schools.