‘Many of the important operational financial decisions of schools are largely idiosyncratic.’ This was the finding of a DfE sponsored research project that reported in 2012. Earlier today David Laws as Minister of State issued a written ministerial statement on future funding for schools in 2014-15. In the end, whatever decisions are made about how to fund schools, the spending decisions are now taken at the school level. How idiosyncratic schools’ individual decisions are can be determined, at least in historical terms, by an analysis of the raw data the DfE now publishes on its web site
Recent data for academies allows comparisons between such schools expenditure patterns. The latest data is for the school-year 2010-11 since it seemingly takes longer for the private sector to produce accounts than for state owned schools, where data up to March 2012 has been in the public domain for some time now. It would be invidious to look at academies starting in 2010, since they would not have a full complement of pupils, and there are always extra start-up costs. However, taking four academies outside London with starting dates between 2003 and 2008 provides an interesting picture of expenditure over four different categories.
All academies with Key Stage 4: National median expenditure £3,544
The 4 academies £2,047 £3,512 £3,700 £4594
All academies with Key Stage 4: National median expenditure £29
The 4 academies £65 £72 £99 £123
All academies with Key Stage 4: National median expenditure £71
The 4 academies £24 £53 £81 £92
All academies with Key Stage 4: National median expenditure £603
The 4 academies £602 £779 £880 £885
On every element there is a wide range of expenditure between the four academies. It is important that boards of directors of academies do these sorts of comparisons just as much as governing bodies of community schools so that they can justify the use of what is still in the final analysis public money.
The new funding arrangements for 2014-15 may be the last before a major reform that will grapple with the vexed question of regional funding levels, as well as those at the individual school level. The greater flexibility for the funding of small schools in rural areas highlighted in the ministerial statement will no doubt be welcomed by many in the shire counties and unitary authorities in rural areas, but the approach could mean the end of some small urban primary schools unless they have relatively low overheads and staffing costs towards the lower end of the range. There won’t be many TLRs in those schools, and the new pay arrangements might mean these were the first schools to face the staff with the choice of an increment or the closure of the school.
School funding arrangements will never please everyone, but it is clear that value for money benchmarks that governors and directors of schools can benchmark their own schools against might be a useful aid to constructing budgets and helping ministers decide the funding mechanisms for the future.