Lord Agnew’s cost-cutting consultants told a school to replace experienced teachers with support staff on term-time contracts, while another was urged to limit lunch portions for pupils.
Secret reports seen by Schools Week reveal other tips from the “school resource management advisers” include saving money on supply teachers by instead using spare staff to cover three classes at a time in the dining hall.
The same school, Corfe Hills, a secondary in Dorset, was also urged to keep 50 per cent of money raised for local charities – including a children’s hospice.
Agnew, the academies minister, parachuted the SRMAs into schools under a trial scheme last year to help them to cut costs.
These findings read like a bad April Fool’s Day joke
At a conference in November he reportedly claimed that the advisers – normally school business managers – found £35 million of “essentially misdirected resources” at 72 schools and trusts, which amounted to a “colossal sum of money”.
He has since extended the trial with £2.3 million extra funding to provide at least 160 advisers.
While the government refused to release the reports from the trial to Schools Week, we have since seen about 20 from the schools and trusts that took part.
They reveal advice to cut curricula and slash the number of hours in a school week.
“These findings read like a bad April Fool’s Day joke. They make a mockery of Lord Agnew’s claim that he can root out waste in schools,” says Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL).
“The proposals do not identify ‘waste’, but instead range from cutting educational provision to desperate ideas that would deliver marginal gains, such as smaller lunch portions, and the morally dubious suggestion of diverting money intended for charity.
“The whole thing smacks of desperation built upon the false notion that the funding crisis can be solved by trimming a few costs here and there, when the reality is that all possible efficiency savings were exhausted long ago and schools are running on empty.”
Some trusts also claim the advisers told them to make savings they had already made, or already identified and were actioning.
But proposals in some of the reports, obtained under the freedom of information act, have angered education bosses.
‘Cover three classes in the dining hall’
Corfe Hills was told its supply budget was “extremely high” and to “adopt a new model for provision of cover with immediate effect”.
Under an “analysis/rationale” tab the adviser’s report said “adoption of alternative model (ie using existing spare staff capacity to cover three classes at a time in the dining hall) will significantly reduce the supply cover budget”. This would save nearly £50,000, the equivalent to one full-time upper pay teacher.
The school says it did not implement the suggestion.
A report for the Chapeltown Academy, a sixth-form free school in Sheffield, advised it to “look to improve the efficiency of the kitchen, including reviewing the portion size and waste control”.
The “analysis/rationale” section said the school’s business manager believed the portions were “too large” and “by controlling these, it will reduce the amount of food purchased”.
It is a picture of a system in retreat
It also suggested the school explore a food service to local businesses to bring “less food waste” and “potentially more income”. No figure for savings was included.
Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, says it is “quite extraordinary” to have got to the stage where schools have to consider cutting lunchtime portion sizes in an attempt to balance their budgets.
But the Department for Education says the recommendations should be viewed in the wider context of the report, not in isolation.
It says the proposal for cutting portion size was made after the adviser reviewed the trust’s catering with the chain’s business manager and found “there was a large amount of waste”.
As with all reports, it is the “responsibility of the trust to decide which of these recommendations are most appropriate to implement”.
But Barton says: “The government needs to get its priorities right and spend money on schools rather than on providing unhelpful and insulting advice.”
‘Money raised by students should go to those charities’
It was also recommended at Corfe Hills that “income received from charity fundraising activities to be split 50/50 between charities and school”.
The school raises about £7,000 a year for “local causes”, and the change could boost the school’s income in the future by about £5,000 a year. Under a “feedback” tab, the report added that the school “will consider how best to promote as the pupils currently choose the charity”.
Pupils last year picked a local hospice and the Make-A-Wish foundation, which aims to transform the lives of children with critical illnesses.
Phil Keen, the school’s head, told Schools Week: “We think money raised by students for charities they have identified should go to those charities in full.
“Diverting a couple of thousand pounds from this into school will not solve the genuine financial difficulty in a school that has already taken really tough decisions to cut costs.”
Last year Agnew said that advisers would “make the most of the resources available” and “are maximising investment in the classroom”.
But reports seen by Schools Week include recommendations to cut the curriculum.
Leeds UTC was urged to “further review the timetable, especially key stage 5 and reduce the number of subjects offered”.
The report said: “The UTC indicated that geography would be removed from KS5 along with a rationalisation of the maths courses on offer.” It said that would save the school £205,000 if staff cuts were included.
Whiteman says the suggestion is “troubling”. “Cutting costs appears to be of a higher priority than broadening the curriculum or widening opportunities. It is a picture of a system in retreat.”
Leigh UTC was told to explore a “review” of the length of its school week.
Despite Ofsted’s praise for its “business length” day, the report added: “While the model is commendable the UTC cannot currently afford this”.
The report recommended reducing the week from 31.25 hours to “nearer” 25 hours.
Annual accounts show the UTC, which opened five years ago, owes the government £1.5 million to repay loans after financial difficulties. The adviser’s report said the recommended moves would achieve a model that was “financially viable over the short term”.
Schools Week saw the trial’s reports in the same week that an analysis by education unions claims a £5.4 billion shortfall in school budgets over the past three years.
“The fact is, only new money from the treasury will solve the school funding crisis. Cost-cutting, fund-raising and penny pinching will not do it,” Whiteman says.
Replace experienced teachers with support staff
A report into the Wootton Academy Trust said there was an opportunity to “replace a retiring teacher on UPS3 (upper pay scale 3) [redacted] with a member of [redacted] support staff on a term-time only contract”.
Under the heading “rationale”, it said: “Someone who is not a qualified teacher could fill the role”. This could save £36,000 a year.
The same report added: “As and when the opportunity arises replace UPS teachers who leave with NQTs or staff paid on the main teacher pay scale”. They said the average teacher cost at the trust was “very high”.
Chris Billington, a partner in the education team at Wrigleys Solicitors of Leeds and Sheffield, says there is no general principle that if an expensive teacher leaves you can’t replace them with a cheaper teacher – such as part of a restructure on financial grounds or if staff retire or choose to leave.
“The question is, do you have the right qualification, not what level of experience… It’s very easy to get a cheaper teacher in, but it may well have an impact on the quality of education.”
A report for the Heath Family Trust says its recovery plan did not include “opportunistic savings” such as a “U3 scale teacher resigning and being replaced by a M1 scale teacher”. This could save up to £150,000 a year.
The trust told Schools Week it always seeks to “appoint the best candidates to the roles we have available in order to secure the best outcomes for our students”.
Kevin Courtney, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, says moves to replace experienced staff with new teachers had “huge implications for workload of current teachers. It’s a false economy”.
Other proposals include eroding pay conditions. An adviser told Stratton Upper School in Bedfordshire to reduce its 52-week contracts for administrative staff, which the adviser wrote were “not needed and not affordable”.
This could help to save £4,000, but “likely to be more with outsourcing”.
‘Sometimes you have to analyse the small things’
The reports also contain a list of checks, such as whether the school has a “good quality” three-to-five financial year plan.
If a trust was visited, there was also a section on whether an integrated curriculum financial planning tool – such as those drawn up by the Outwood Grange Academies Trust or ASCL – had been utilised.
Many of the reports highlighted “curriculum headroom” gains in unallocated timetable sessions, and compared things such as staffing structures and contact ratios to other schools to check if efficiencies could be made. Many included proposals for staff restructuring and freezing pay rises.
Matthew Clements-Wheeler, the chair of the Institute of School Business Leadership, which accredits the advisers, says: “It is right that school leaders are gently asked to consider their resource allocation decisions in light of the latest research, money that is available and expectations – often out of our control – from politicians, pupils and parents.”
He says that parents have a right to expect “we are not being profligate with resources. Sometimes that will include analysing the small things, the minutiae of running an organisation, but when you multiply that across a trust it can soon add up”.
Agnew’s brief for advisers was to be a “second opinion to question critically some of the decisions trusts have made”. Clements-Wheeler says the minister was clear that “the responsibility for taking the actual actions to address difficulties isn’t on the shoulders of the school resource management advisers”.
The DfE said: “We are continuing to work with schools that have had SRMA support to understand which recommendations they have implemented and what impact they have made.
“The early evidence shows that this collaborative approach has been positively received and we are planning to publish more details on the actions trusts have taken in due course.”
Cut your counsellor’s hours – while “excessive” PFI soars
A report into Thrybergh Academy in South Yorkshire said it had a PFI contract that “appears excessive” (four times more per pupil that other schools pay for similar services, outside such a contract).
Not only that, the repayments rose each year at a “far quicker rate than the academy can sustain”.
But the report detailed just how helpless schools were to remove the shackles of PFI. “I haven’t seen the contract which ends 2034, but am assured there is no opportunity to renegotiate the terms (this was apparently referred to a solicitor), indeed I am informed it states if the academy is not able to pay the contract, the ESFA is obliged to cover the cost,” said the adviser.
The increases might be easier to manage if the trust “can reduce some other staffing and running costs”.
One suggested solution was to review the curriculum support staff structure which was “well above average” for a through-school.
Replacing the full-time children protection manager with a member of teaching staff with teaching and learning responsibilities would save £33,000. Moving the careers/counsellor to work term-time only would save £4,000; bringing work experience in-house, £3,000.
Agnew’s £35 million claims shot down
Agnew claimed his advisers found £35 million of savings across their 72 visits during the trial. However, some trusts claimed advisers included savings in their report that had already been made, or had been identified and were being actioned.
The Engage MAT claims it did not receive a report and was not advised of “any sums that could be saved nor of any phased implementation plan”.
The Brook Learning Trust, in an FOI response, says its adviser suggested it could save more than £1 million – but many of the savings had “already been identified and were being progressed by the trust”. Some represented “double counting”, while “some proposed ‘savings’ were flawed because the cost of generating the saving would outweigh any benefit, and no account was taken of external inflationary cost pressures that negated the impact of potential savings”.
The trust says a “final report was never agreed” with the DfE, and refuses to share the “non-agreed version”.
The De La Salle Trust says it had “already sought significant savings” after it a financial notice to improve. “The process was more a validation of the steps we had already taken.” It added: “As a result there is no report to share.”