Much Agnew about nothing? No savings possible at one in 10 schools

Lord Agnew’s cost-cutters failed to identify savings at more than one in ten schools they visited, new figures show.

The findings challenge the government’s rhetoric around school funding, particularly from former academies minister Lord Agnew, which suggested that all schools could tighten their purse strings.

A Freedom of Information request found no savings opportunities were recorded at eight of the 72 schools or trusts that welcomed school resource management advisers (SRMA) under the trial that ran in 2017-18.

The Department for Education has claimed savings were identified at the schools, but just not recorded.

However Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said the findings show the cost-cutter policy is “based on the fantasy that ‘schools have more money than ever before’ and therefore any schools in financial difficulties must be doing something wrong.”

Agnew famously said in 2018 he would bet any headteacher “a bottle of champagne and a letter of commendation” his advisers could find savings in their schools – and likened himself to “a pig hunting truffles” in his pursuit of efficiencies.

When asked if Agnew had in fact sent those schools a bottle of champagne, the DfE reiterated, “opportunities were identified in these cases but they were not costed or reported.”

But Bousted said the initiative was “only ever intended to generate news stories” and designed “to shift the blame from the ministers responsible for underfunding schools”.

The DfE has refused to release reports of the school resource management adviser visits, stating that the findings are confidential.

Bousted said it was not surprising information about the advisers’ work “had to be dragged from the government through FOIs and leaks”.

She added: “They reveal that the whole initiative has been a waste of public funds and that too often the advisers recommended heartless cuts that no civilised society should consider, such as cutting the size of portions for school lunches.”

Based on leaked reports, Schools Week previously revealed that some cost-cutting recommendations included telling leaders to limit pupils’ lunch portions, to replace experienced teachers with support staff and to keep hold of money raised for charity.

During the trial visits, advisers found savings of £35 million across the 72 schools and trusts. Speaking at an event in 2018, Agnew said these “essentially misdirected resources” comprised a “colossal sum of money”.

However, one of these visits alone (most likely at one of the larger academy trusts visited) amounted to £6.7 million of savings – or nearly 20 per cent of the total savings found.

There were a further five schools or trusts where savings of over £1 million were identified.

The figure for median savings identified is actually £267,000. An evaluation of the trial found just 16 per cent of identified savings had actually been enacted.

However, that still meant £13 had been saved for every £1 spent on the scheme.

A DfE spokesperson said the pilot had covered recommendations for the “majority of schools that participated in the programme but for a minority, not all saving opportunities were recorded”.

“We have since altered the SRMA report to ensure all reports now include fully costed recommendations as far as possible, as we believe this is more helpful to the trusts.”

They also said trusts who had worked with an SRMA “made clear it was invaluable to have a second set of expert eyes look over their plans”.

The visits have since been rolled out, and Agnew claimed in January that his team of experts had found £172 million of potential savings in schools during more than 400 visits since 2017.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of Schools and College Leaders (ASCL), said it can be “helpful for schools to have the advice of an SRMA” but added “the scope for savings is limited.

The spending of schools is mainly invested in putting teachers in front of classes and providing pupils with appropriate levels of support.”

He added it was “no surprise to find that it has not proved possible to identify savings in a number of schools”.