English primary and secondary schools spend huge sums and efficiency savings are possible, the Commission says. The schools bill topped £31 billion in 2007/08, an increase of 56 per cent in real terms over the last decade. The Commission concludes that we can't know for sure whether the taxpayer is getting value for money.
The report says school inspections focussed on educational standards and what teachers do, which is necessary. They pay less attention to economy and efficiency. Councils also pay insufficient attention to value for money in their support of schools. Many school governors should be tougher in seeking value for the public purse.
Michael O'Higgins, the Chairman of the Commission, said:
‘The Commission supports the principle of devolved school budgets and decision making, but taxpayers must be confident that public money is well spent.
‘Accountability for spending in schools has been weak possibly because, in the last ten years, the focus has been on results. Ofsted [the schools' inspectorate] is planning to give a higher priority to value for money and we will be pleased to work with it.
‘Now, however, is a good time for schools to look for better value from the money they get. Budgets are growing more slowly and schools need to start planning for a more austere future. We believe savings could be made without adversely affecting pupils or their education.
‘Moreover, nearly 40 per cent of schools are sitting on unnecessarily large surpluses - cash that could be spent on pupils. Hoarding money intended for education is poor value.'
The Commission analysed what similar schools were spending and found schools could save:
- £80m on cleaning and caretaking. One school saved more than £130,000 over three years by changing its caretaking contract.
- £65m from administrative supplies. One council identified total savings of 10 per cent on administrative supplies just by comparing what price other schools in the area were paying for the same standard items.
The Commission says schools also need to ask themselves hard questions about their workforce. Since 1997, teacher numbers in England grew by 32,000, with 100,000 more teaching assistants and 70,000 more support staff. Over the same period pupil numbers fell by 80,000. Now they must consider:
- Will these staffing levels be affordable?
- Does the mix of teachers, teaching assistants and non teaching staff offer good value for money
- Could staff be deployed more efficiently?
Mr O'Higgins said the Commission intended to look at the school workforce in a future report, possibly produced with Ofsted:
‘Numbers of teachers, teaching assistants and support staff have increased whilst pupil numbers have fallen.
‘It is not clear whether the money spent on this increase in resource has been spent as well as possible and we need to look at this in greater detail.'
The report also says that other things schools could do to improve value for money include:
- Using the Department for Children, Schools and Families national benchmarking tool to identify high costs.
- Including staff costs in school development plans.
- Joining other schools to share staff, improve spending power and achieve savings.
The Commission will help by: