Schools enact fewer cost-cutter savings as budgets tighten

Findings prompt warning 'no amount of advice can balance the books'

Findings prompt warning 'no amount of advice can balance the books'

5 May 2023, 12:00

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Whiteman and Barton

Schools are enacting fewer savings identified by government cost cutters, prompting warnings “no amount of advice” can balance shrinking budgets.

Schools Week analysis reveals leaders made, on average, £10,100 of reductions after they were visited by school resource management advisers (SRMAs) last year.

That compares to nearly £19,000 of savings headteachers implemented, on average, in the three years between 2018 and 2021, backing up concerns schools are running out of financial wiggle room.  

“You cannot advise your way out of a funding crisis,” said Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.

“The reality is schools and trusts are thinking all the time about how to reduce costs with minimum impact on provision, and advice from SRMAs is one way they do this. 

“But the level of funding is such that no amount of advice can balance the books. Schools are often left having to set deficit budgets and plan for cuts, which impact on the curriculum and support they are able to offer.”

Barton also argued that many heads given advice by SRMAs factor it into other considerations around provision and “make decisions on how far to go with savings identified”. 

The government has claimed a 4 per cent pay rise for teachers and leaders next year can be funded from within existing school budgets, thanks to a £2 billion uplift in allocation.

Leaders told to use DfE cost-cutters

But many schools say they are facing further cuts to balance budgets.

Tom Goldman, the deputy director of the Department for Education’s funding policy unit, told a webinar last week that leaders facing “bankruptcy” should use cost-cutters or go to councils or government for financial help.

The cost-cutters – normally school business leaders – have been visiting schools since September 2018 as part of an economy drive under then-academies minister Lord Agnew.

However, government research concluded more than half of schools said the advisers did not find them new ways to save cash.

Our findings show SRMAs proposed more than £1 billion of cuts during 1,454 visits over the past five years. 

The Department for Education said the figure was a “total cumulative value of all opportunities identified over a three-year period”, including revenue-generating options and “recommendations considered to be of low achievability”. 

About £450 million of those savings were thought to be achievable through “individual, one-off opportunities, excluding revenue generation”.

Despite this, heads only made reductions totalling £24.3 million in the six months after they were checked.

But last year, £3.7 million was saved within six months after 366 visits. Cost-cutters identified £292 million of savings overall.

Savings don’t provide ‘comprehensive’ picture

Government officials said the savings figures do not provide a “comprehensive” picture, as many “of the opportunities trusts and schools plan to take forward will be realised over a longer period”. 

However, the department admitted it did “not hold actual figures” beyond the six-month mark.

Stephen Morales, the chief executive of the Institute of Schools Business Leadership, said the “extent to which schools are prepared to make the suggested savings or adjust the way they’re working to realise them will vary”.

The visits help school leaders “make better judgments and more informed decisions”, he added.

Paul Wheeler, the chief operating officer of the East Midlands Academy Trust, who is also an SRMA, said the advisers did not have targets and were instead focused on “sharing best practice”. 

“When you start the deployment there are more opportunities to find savings, but as good practice gets disseminated schools manage their resources better”. 

Don’t ‘recklessly’ remove important resources

Morales added that SRMAs were charged with identifying ways to “redeploy resources without taking anything out of the school”.  

“We shouldn’t be recklessly removing important resources from faculties, cutting out important capital improvement projects or disinvesting in tech – all that would be backwards.” 

An evaluation of the SRMA, held between 2017 and 2018, found a “benefit-cost ratio of £13 for every £1 spent”. The DfE said it “broadly expects to see a similar return from the programme as it rolls out”.  

But Paul Whiteman, who leads the National Association of Head Teachers, said cost savings could only take schools “so far”, calling for significant new investment.

A DfE spokesperson said they do not ask for savings after six months to “reduce further reporting burdens on schools”.

She said it was “incorrect to assume SRMA reviews are about cutting costs”, as their “focus is on reallocating resource to school improvement and pupil needs”.

Schools are able to choose “which of the [savings] options may work for their individual context”.

Nearly nine in ten schools said they found the visit ‘good’ or ‘very good’, a DfE survey found.

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  1. A Hartley

    Very easy to save money. Change all Microsoft computers to Chrome osflex, move from on site servers to Google, move students to Chromebooks.
    This will give a massive saving on electricity, IT costs, Microsoft licence costs and will engage students but it won’t happen because schools think they are corporate organisations and glorified head teachers want to be called CEO’s and they have the strange idea that Microsoft makes them a company.

  2. C.M.Christo

    How much did the cost cutters themselves cost? One way you can cost cutting is to appoint a head someone with a business mind and do away with the accountants.
    A similar arguments arise when companies are in difficulties; the accountants will tell you: cut research, cut training cut H&S and usually get it wrong. As a last thing the government should absorb cost due to inflation, they cause it they should pay for it.

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