Schools are “responding to funding pressure by reducing curriculum breadth”, the chief inspector of schools has warned.
In a blog post published this morning, Amanda Spielman said it was “particularly concerning” to see schools reducing access to subjects such as languages, computing, design and technology and music.
However, the blog post has now been removed from Ofsted’s website because it was published “erroneously”. It will be published again in the coming weeks, along with a more detailed study on school funding.
The chief inspector has been under pressure for some years to say more about the impact of real-terms funding cuts on children’s education. She was criticised by the Parliamentary education committee in 2018 after she said it would be “inappropriate” for her to comment on issues on which Ofsted does not have “clear evidence”.
But in today’s blog post, Spielman admitted that since 2015, “costs have been rising more rapidly than income”, and accepted that cuts to local authority budgets have had a “significant impact on schools”.
However, she also criticised the response of some schools to funding cuts, warning that “few school leaders carefully monitor the impacts of their responses to financial pressure”.
‘All pupils should be entitled to a broad and rich curriculum’
Spielman’s comments about the impact of funding pressures on curriculum are particularly important, given that what schools teach is now the main area of focus for Ofsted in its inspections.
“We placed curriculum and quality of education at the heart of our education inspection framework, because all pupils should be entitled to a broad and rich curriculum that will give them the foundations for further study or work, and prepare them for life in modern Britain,” said Spielman.
“This makes it particularly concerning that schools are responding to funding pressure by reducing curriculum breadth, with languages, computing, design and technology and music most affected. Extra-curricular provision has also been cut in a number of schools. This may reduce pupils’ opportunities to enrich their experiences and grow cultural capital.”
Ofsted’s research in this area is due to be explored in more detail with the publication of its full study in the coming weeks.
Spielman said that in the study, “we saw most schools making reductions to the number of teachers”.
“In some of the secondary schools we visited, subject specialists were not being replaced when they left and other teachers were teaching outside their specialism. In some schools, experienced teachers were replaced with less-experienced and lower-qualified staff.”
Schools also reported cutting continuous professional development and removing teaching and learning responsibility points, Spielman said.
“In some schools, higher level teaching assistants were being used to cover classes when teachers were absent, rather than the school paying for teachers to cover these lessons.”
She said that while some of these decisions “cannot be helped” and staff cuts “may be necessary”, they are sometimes “being done with insufficient monitoring of the effects on quality of education”.
“This is clearly not the way to ensure that children and young people get the education they deserve.”
Schools face ‘difficult decisions’ on SEND
Curriculum breadth is one of three main areas identified by Spielman as being affected by funding pressures. The others are teacher workload and SEND provision.
Spielman said schools had also spoken out about reduced provision for SEND pupils, particularly among those who receive SEND support, but aren’t subject to an education, health and care plan (EHCP). Services cut included one-on-one support, as well as external services like educational psychology, behavioural support and alternative provision.
She warned that reduction in support could potentially “reinforce the view among many parents that obtaining an EHCP is the ‘golden ticket’ required for effective SEND support”.
The chief inspector also pointed to evidence from Ofsted’s inspections of LA SEND support that “there are major challenges to SEND provision in England”, adding that funding pressures, “though not the sole cause, is likely to be an exacerbating factor”.
“Schools therefore had difficult decisions to make. In many cases, we found they did so thoughtfully and in the best interests of children. But this was not always the case.”
ASCL ‘disappointed’ by criticism of schools
Schools are not to blame for the impact of funding cuts, the school leaders’ union ASCL has insisted.
Responding to Spielman’s blog post, Stephen Rollett, ASCL’s curriculum and inspection specialist, said although his organisation welcomed her acknowledge of the damage done by cuts, it was “disappointed that she accuses schools of failing to do enough to monitor the impact of the cuts they have had to make”.
“Let’s be clear that the blame lies with the government which has caused the crisis by failing to fund schools properly and leaving them with no alternative other than to make cuts.”
Rollett said schools, which spend most of their budgets on staffing, “don’t have any option other than to reduce courses and extra-curricular provision if they have to make cuts”.
“It is the last thing they want to do but they have been left with impossible choices, and no amount of monitoring makes that situation any better.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said it would comment on Ofsted’s report on school funding “as and when it is published in full”.