MPs demand to see secretive cost-cutter reports

The government must release reports by its school cost-cutting consultants to MPs and provide evidence of the value for money of their recommendations, the parliamentary education committee has said.

In a damning report on school and college funding published today, the cross-party committee warned of “significant financial strain” on schools, and chastised ministers for their “counter-productive” mantra that more money than ever before is going into education.

Claims about record school funding have fuelled an “unnecessarily adversarial relationship” with parents and teachers, and given the impression “of a department unwilling to engage with the realities of funding pressures”.

Alongside calls for an “urgent funding increase” for schools, the extension of the pupil premium to sixth formers and significant uplifts in both high needs and post-16 funding, the report demands the committee is provided with full reports from the Department for Education’s team of school resource management advisers (SRMAs).

The creation of the SRMA role is one of several initiatives developed by ministers to help schools save money. But leaders argue that they have already cut their budgets to the bone, in the face of an 8 per cent real-terms cut in funding between 2009-10 and 2017-18.

According to today’s report, the committee was “disturbed” by an investigation in Schools Week of the recommendations made by some SRMAs, which included urging schools to keep money raised at charity events, cut children’s food portions and use spare staff to cover three simultaneous classes in the dining hall.

Although they have promised a breakdown of savings identified, ministers continue to refuse to publish the full slate of reports, which have so far only been released by the some of the schools themselves.

In their report, the committee said the department “should provide us with the full documents described by Schools Week, a breakdown by category of the measures suggested by school resource management advisers across the country, how much the resource advisers cost, and an evaluation of the long-term value for money provided by their cost-saving recommendations”.

Overall, the committee’s report paints a bleak picture of funding situation in schools, calls for the full implementation of the promised national funding formula, and repeats demands already made by chair Robert Halfon for a 10-year-funding plan.

Such a plan would take the “political short-termism” out of school and college funding, MPs said.

Included in any plan should be a multi-billion-pound settlement from the Treasury “informed by a bottom-up assessment of the cost of delivering a quality education for all children and young people”. Ministers have been told to confirm their intentions and timeline for such a plan in response to the report.

The DfE also “needs to be transparent about how much money is needed for the education system”, the report said.

“It must conduct and publish a comprehensive, bottom-up assessment of what services and support schools and colleges are having to provide, the real-world costs of delivering these activities and meeting attainment expectations, and how these costs relate to current school and college funding provision.

“The outcome of this assessment must inform the funding package for the ten-year plan.”

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the ASCL school leaders’ union, said the report was a “damning indictment of the government’s dreadful record on school and college funding”.

“It rightly identifies the fact that the government’s mantra that ‘more money than ever is going into education’ has added insult to injury at a time when schools and colleges have suffered devastating real-terms cuts.

“It is spot-on about the need for a long-term education funding plan which is based upon what schools and colleges actually need.”

Meanwhile a separate report today warned the spiralling costs of special educational needs services could “break” councils’ budgets.

The 36 councils represented by the County Councils Network have seen a 46 per cent rise in youngsters given an education, health, and care plans. Of those councils, 27 recorded a combined overspend on £123 million in 2018-19 on their high needs block.