The Journal for Executive and Governance Leaders

Hatchet or Scalpel – developing a different narrative

You will not have missed the continuing dialogue concerning challenges in school funding. Impassioned reactions of education leaders and the concerned public into the state of school funding have maintained prominence for some time. Education conferences would have you believing that the education world is in melt-down! £87.2bn is not enough to go around!

Headlines are abundant, ‘Swinging the hatchet’ and ‘Swathing cutbacks.’ How do we respond within our organisations? Hack at already pressured budgets or become surgically adept at strategically focused interventions? Bluntly are we wielding the hatchet or the scalpel?

The result we all seek is a world-class system that is both flexible and personalised, fit-for-purpose, driven by the needs of the families and communities served within realistic expectations of what can be achieved with the resources available.

Chris Jones

Is it time for a re-think? Education uses the adage, “Do what you’ve always done, and you get what you’ve always got!” Is it time to consider what we are doing and consider the issues differently? We ask “How will it remain possible to offer a world-class education system within an economy that is more efficiency focused?” By re-framing our thinking and legacy practices. Whether or not there is more or less money becomes less the driver; the open scrutiny of public funds means a different methodology and dialogue.

The only way to make the provisions we need is to look at significant structural costs. Many grabbed, with relish, the Local Management of Schools in the 1980s, but the issue created then and – now in the Academy and Free school era – is the lack of service provision. In terms of major school costs, staffing – and thus curriculum delivery – is 80-90% (or more in many cases) of the financial plan, so it is logical to explore this further.

Lord Agnew, School System Minister, introduced the School Resource Management Advisers, to explore efficiencies, but they openly admit to focusing on the 10-20% of ‘other spending,’ with little impact on the majority spend. Headlines have cited simplistic actions that have more reputational impact than real funding benefit. “How can we justify the inevitable increase in class sizes, or reduction in the breadth of offer to learners (the Arts and Technology Gap)?” It’s a complex issue and simple answers have significant impact on groups of learners. However, many schools manage incredible outcomes with larger classes and challenging groups in disadvantaged areas of the country. Clearly the answers are very complex and more varied than simplistic spending cuts achieve. The drive for Academies to provide efficiencies have largely made little difference to their predecessor Local Authorities. Why? Maybe the underlying thinking is the same. Poor practices and ‘fat-cat’ salaries are highlighted by increased scrutiny; this open accountability was not experienced by the Local Authorities. But although they are now more publicly discussed, the issues are the same!

The narrative must be how to structure investment in the education of our young people within a system that puts the funding where it is needed to the best effect. If asked to articulate how much an education costs, it implies we understand the nature of the education expected and whether it is the same for all. The varying needs of socially disengaged or special needs individuals make it clear that we have to take an approach that is systematic and structured; this is not about slashing or hacking and the race to the middle, the average learner. The result we all seek is a world-class system that is both flexible and personalised, fit-for-purpose, driven by the needs of the families and communities served within realistic expectations of what can be achieved with the resources available.

Simplistic responses: increasing class sizes; the inability to sustain teaching assistants; reducing the breadth of curriculum; headline-grabbing lack of glue, pencils and toilet rolls are all acknowledged, but they need to be faced with a different dialogue. These are the minutiae of the whole budget and pale compared to bigger decisions that are too often not explored because of legacy practice and immovable pre-sets. Headline-grabbing is not the way forward, but open analysis and strategic review is.

So before you get the axes out, as it is currently inevitable you will be forced to do, I believe it is important that we recognise it is time to take a good look at integrated curriculum and finance methodology, being SMART about the curriculum. Let us examine how the system is structured, lead and staffed with more forensic analysis, and be open to respond in new ways.

Are you prepared for a surgical intervention and to change the narrative from a deficit mindset to an investment opportunity?