Schools

Many DfE cost-cutters couldn’t find schools savings, survey reveals

School resource management advisers have been visiting schools since 2018

School resource management advisers have been visiting schools since 2018

18 Mar 2022, 5:00

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More than half of schools say cost-cutting advisers did not find them new ways of saving money, according to the government’s own research.

A survey found one school accused a regional schools commissioner (RSC) of stepping in to “influence” an adviser’s report. Another said their adviser recommended cutting emotional literacy support and dinner staff. Unions said the revelations were “outrageous”.

School resource management advisers (SRMAs) have been visiting schools since 2018 as part of a cost-cutting drive under then-academies minister Lord Agnew.

Last year the Education and Skills Funding Agency said a survey showed most schools rated visits as “good”, and it ramped up SRMA numbers. It began promoting the scheme again this month.

‘I’m sure champagne is winging its way to heads’

But a Schools Week freedom of information request has revealed the survey responses not included in government promotional material.

More than 100 schools, making up 52 per cent of respondents, said SRMAs did not identify any actionable savings or revenue-generating opportunities they had not found already.

How Schools Week covered Agnews pledge

One called their input “disappointing, misleading and a waste of time”, while another dubbed it a “large time commitment for no workable outcomes”.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said the figures were “telling”, with visits potentially useful but “not the solution to the funding crisis”.

He noted recent analysis suggesting real-terms funding will only reach 2010 levels in 2024.

Agnew famously bet headteachers a bottle of champagne if advisers could not find savings. “I’m sure those bottles are winging their way to heads as I speak,” said Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of teachers’ union NEU.

She said there was no doubting Agnew’s commitment to cutting waste, but it had been a distraction from high-profile academy fraud scandals and inadequate budgets.

“It might be helpful to have someone say you’re doing a good job, but it hardly addresses real issues,” she added. Agnew did not respond to a request for comment.

Reassurance over savings already planned could explain why some schools valued the visits, new ideas or not.

Schools Week previously revealed advisers telling leaders to cut lunch portions.

RSC ‘seemingly stepped in to influence report’

Survey responses include further controversial practices. One school claimed an RSC “seemingly stepped in to question and even influence the report”. The process “didn’t come across as being transparent or non-political”.

Another accused an SRMA of “advertising his own independent services”.

schools
Unisons Mike Short

Stephen Morales, chief executive of the Institute of School Business Leadership, said RSC interference would be “highly unusual” and SRMAs could signpost services but not promote their own.

One SRMA reportedly recommended cutting a librarian, an emotional literacy support assistant and dinner staff numbers.

Unison’s head of education Mike Short called the suggestion “outrageous” and said such staff were “critical”.

But the survey includes no further details. Morales said recommendations should be seen “in the context of the particular deployment”.

Trusts can either be invited or ordered to host SRMAs, or request free visits themselves.

schools
LEAs Andrew Dowsett

London Enterprise Academy (LEA) received a visit after an agency contractor committed fraud in 2018-19. Andrew Dowsett, the chair of governors, claimed the SRMA recommended slashing teacher numbers, ending meal and trip subsidies and reviewing the curriculum.

He told Schools Week: “Small groups of students and a wide curriculum are a great advert for LEA, and we give free lunches to kids not getting meals at home. What else are we going to spend our surplus on?”

Accounts say fraud controls were reviewed by the ESFA and “appropriate action” was taken.

Majority of schools recommend a visit

Some SRMAs were dubbed “brilliant”, “exceptional” and “highly experienced”, however. Some 77 per cent of schools recommended visits.

One chief executive, new in post and reviewing his trust’s finances, called their adviser an “extremely useful, critical friend”. He said timing and openness were key. Defensiveness would have made SRMA input a “waste of time”.

One trust employee, who worked as an SRMA themselves, praised another adviser’s visit, adding: “We should do more peer-to-peer reviews.”

Some praised advisers’ relevant expertise — though others claimed SRMAs lacked suitable experience or benchmarking data for PFI, boarding or special school settings.

A DfE spokesperson said: “The majority of schools and trusts respond positively to an SRMA visit, with most reporting that the experience of working with an SRMA was good or very good.

“This is a collaborative process, whereby SRMAs provide advice from an impartial perspective and trusts decide which recommendations to take forward and implement.”

Want to claim your bottle of champagne?

Lord Agnew can be contacted at contactholmember@parliament.uk with the subject line ‘FAO Lord Agnew’.

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