Am I just a pawn on the chess board of education?

Am I just a pawn on the chess board of education?

I’m not one for raging.

I’m more of a bide-my-time, find out the facts and take a “reasonableness” approach. “Evolution, not revolution” was a mantra of my first Headteacher. Having been in the game for a while now, I accept the business of education is a long game of strategy and we are not going to improve outcomes by making drastic moves or rashly rushing to distribute untargeted funding.

Of course, politics and the media are always looking for a reaction nowadays. We’re encouraged to march, get angry, personalise the issues and attack those who disagree with our point of view. A mob mentality can easily take over, promoting the banding into insular like-minded groups. You like football, I like rugby; I’m a vegetarian, you’re a carnivore; My ancestors came to England in the 1060s, yours in the 1960s. Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it?

I was asked to complete a survey recently that demonstrated a frightening direction of travel. “How would you feel if a bi-sexual joined your community?” It just raised questions in my head…

  • What is the point of the question?
  • How would I know this new person was bi-sexual?
  • What community? School? Social group? Family? Church?
  • What “feelings” should I have?
  • Is “indifferent” an appropriate answer?

In School Business Leadership, on one side we are being told that funding has been consistently eroded over recent decades, on the other that spending on education has never been so high. Of course, we know they are both right. You can give me more money but if you are telling me I must spend it on statutory pay and pension contribution increases and there are more children in education than ever, it’s not really ‘more’ is it?

I can only relate my own experience as an SBL.

In order to keep my front-line staffing at accepted levels it feels like I must allocate a increasingly higher proportion of income to it. What gives? Premises, technology advances, everyday resources…and jam – those additions that enhance the experience for everyone.

In my view. That’s it. That’s the bottom line.

However, I recently came across a government table showing annual expenditure per pupil from 2002-2017. The table shows that the total per pupil expenditure has risen over the 15 year period by 42%, but that the proportion of that total spend on staffing has only risen by 33%, with non-staffing spend rising by 68%. Closer examination of the data showed that “staffing” didn’t include everything I would consider to be staffing, but when I recalculated this into my world, the %age staffing spend increase in 15 years was still only 37%, with staffing consistently representing 80% of total spending.

OK. What am I doing wrong?

Looking at the other cost centres, it became clear. Energy (75%), education resources (23%), exam costs (37%), consultancy (196%), maintenance (49%) ICT (17%)…all have seen significant increases in spend in the same 15 years.

The data shows that we are all working hard to maintain our staffing levels, and we are succeeding (admittedly with the help of some specific grants). But I think it shows that the per pupil funding formula, as an indication of what schools need to fund education, only works for the staffing expenditure element and doesn’t take all the other operational cost increases into account. These non-staff costs are continuing to rise, inevitably resulting in a squeeze to staffing and an enforced reduction in the other vital operational costs.

I don’t have the answers. Like the previous survey, I just have more questions.

  • When will we fund schools equitably?
  • How do we take specifics into account such as AEN, FSM, local demographics and individual needs?
  • How do we make those operational costs more cost efficient? Are economies of scale (ie MATs) actually the answer?
  • Would something like central buying of utilities improve efficiency?

I think that what worries me most is that noone is asking. I can’t help but feel a bit like a pawn on a chess board, being moved towards a conclusion that only the players themselves know. But this pawn wants to know what the end game is. I suspect that the direction of travel isn’t going to be welcomed by everybody, but I think we can work with it and if we know where we’re headed, we can help to inform and support the direction of travel.

Assuming someone (anyone?) knows, of course…

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