Beneath the headlines of the Ofsted school funding report

by

21st February 2020

Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s chief executive created a bit of a storm this week by publishing a blog on school funding. The blog was quickly removed by the watchdog, however Schools Week have published the full article which you can read here.

Angry doesn’t begin to describe many teachers’ and school leaders’ reactions, interrupted midway through their half-term breaks with inflammatory newspaper headlines such as “Ofsted fears schools will ‘squander’ extra cash”. We understand how school leaders must have felt – it’s the last thing many needed after grappling with ever tighter budgets.

We understand how school leaders must have felt – it’s the last thing many needed after grappling with ever tighter budgets Click To Tweet

The article went on to argue that “funding can still be squandered when it is plentiful, meaning taxpayers’ money could be wasted for little benefit”. Of course, making decisions about how best to use funding when there are so many competing priorities is tricky, and school leaders do face challenges, but the tone of the article unhelpfully created doubts over school leaders’ ability to make the right financial decisions.

With that being said, the article and the research report it is based on, was never intended as an attack on schools. Whilst we acknowledge that the wording was misjudged in places, we think it is worth pointing out three things Ofsted have got right:

  1. Recognising the problem

Ofsted are right to highlight the fact that schools and local services have been underfunded for years. This is a welcome contrast to last year’s annual report which gave insufficient recognition to budget cuts. In contrast, this report highlights that:

“Since 2015, costs have been rising more rapidly than income. Most of the reduction in spending comes from cuts to local authority (LA) budgets, which have had a significant impact on schools.”

Ofsted are right to highlight the fact that schools and local services have been underfunded for years. This is a welcome contrast to last year’s annual report which gave insufficient recognition to budget cuts. Click To Tweet

Ofsted’s willingness to engage with the evidence on real terms cuts to school budgets may partly reflect the new government’s rhetoric on increasing school funding, but nonetheless helpfully points out three areas where extra funding could helpfully be spent.

  1. Highlighting three particularly problematic areas:

The report highlights the need for increased focus on three areas in which inadequate funding has had the gravest consequences:

  • SEND provision: As a result of budget squeezes, schools have been reducing one-to-one support. Many external services have also vanished. Limited funding has led to greater demand for EHCPs and this is partly because desperate parents understand that an EHCP might be the only way to secure the provision their child needs.

 

  • Curriculum breath and education quality: Schools have been forced to narrow the curriculum in response to budget cuts, with languages, computing, design and technology and music taking the biggest hits.

 

  • Teacher workload: Teacher-pupil ratios have slowly been increasing. At the same time teachers have less support from TAs and many senior leaders are increasing their own teaching time.

Whilst the report stops short of making recommendations in these areas, it does point out that the DfE commitment to increase school funding by £7.1 billion by 2022/23 will not be enough to solve all these problems. For SEND provision in particular, “shortfalls in local authority funding” will continue to cause problems for schools and pupils with SEND

The piece places SEND front and centre, highlighting the detrimental effect budget cuts have had on students with SEND. We have been arguing for years that Ofsted and the DfE should lead by example when it comes to prioritising SEND, for example by ensuring that SEND is always mentioned in statements about school quality. This report’s focus on SEND is therefore welcome, even if its wording isn’t.

The report also makes the important point that we can’t improve SEND just by asking schools to do more. It argues that “local SEND provision cannot be the responsibility of schools alone.” Thus local health and care services, and the system for overseeing SEND need to be looked at too.

With a promised £780 million earmarked for SEND funding, we believe there are real opportunities to make real improvements to SEND provision. Look out for a upcoming blog on what we think the priorities for the new governments spending on SEND should be.

we can't improve SEND just by asking schools to do more. Local health and care services, and the system for overseeing SEND need to be looked at too. Click To Tweet
  1. Acknowledging the need for support with financial management

The report recognises that school leaders should receive better support with financial management. The report suggests that schools could benefit from financial indicators and conversations around finances. These would need to be handled sensitively be supportive rather than punitive. Schools need better guidance than the ill-judged advice they have received in the past.

Overall, despite the furore surrounding the Schools Week article, and the justifiable anger many feel over the rhetoric, there are reasons to be positive that Ofsted is no longer silent on some of the biggest challenges facing our school system.