Decision time for schools
24 March 2017
Spending on schools has been making headlines, highlighting the challenges times schools are going through. In his Spring 2017 Budget, the Chancellor announced additional funding for new schools, and some new capex spend – but little change to core challenges. Against this backdrop, there are a number of major decisions that school leaders are facing:
1. To be (an academy), or not to be
There is still a lot of uncertainty in schools about the objectives, the process and the risks of academisation. The process of conversion can be long and arduous, and schools need to enter it with a clear sense of what they want to achieve. We see two critical items that can guide a school through the process:
Firstly – talk to people. Schools considering becoming academies should draw on the experience of their peers and neighbours who have gone through the process and will have tales of joy or woe to share. The regional schools commissioner is also likely to have an incredibly valuable opinion and be a source of support.
Secondly – engage early. We see lots of benefit in a soft preparation before the process begins in earnest, when the ability to change course is at its greatest.
2. Securing your teaching capability
Teachers are at the core of schools. Schools cannot afford to not have a talent management plan, and the more forward-looking the better. With more variation between schools, recruitment needs to emphasise what a school is about in an open and accurate way to find teachers that are the right fit.
Schools also need to consider how they retain talent. As well as finding a strong cultural fit, well-designed and aligned courses and qualifications can be very powerful in providing the right support and career development. For example, we have recently seen part-time Masters in Education courses used as a very effective development and retention tool for ambitious middle leaders, while multi-academy trusts offer potential for non-traditional career paths where outstanding teachers can progress while staying in the classroom.
3. Allocating your budget
It’s clear that the next three years will see an overall decline in real terms per student funding. With finances under pressure, every school will be thinking carefully about how to prioritise and align their budgets to the particular needs and ambitions of the school.
There is no magic answer, but there is a balance to be struck between optimising spending, and managing the rate of change. Given the pressures on budgets, an open debate is needed on where and how a school spends money and what impact it has. It is likely that at least some substantial changes are needed, but each change carries a cost in terms of work and stress to carry it out.
In 2016 we asked a group of 200 school leaders last year about the impact that a reduction in spend in different areas would have on teacher workload and school performance. The picture that we saw was very complicated. Overall, leaders felt reasonably well-balanced – the expected pain from moving significant budget from one area was rarely matched by the expected benefit from increasing it in another.
To maximise school performance, there was a sense that learning software, textbooks and supplementary content were budgets to defend, and that spend on technology and – in secondary schools – on teaching assistants might be exposed. To manage teacher workload, teaching assistants (in primary), learning software and assessment tools were seen as most supportive, and textbooks and technology less so.
4. Creating a culture
The final big issue facing schools is the question of culture. Culture ties together all of the other decisions that school leaders make, and reinforces or undermines their impact.
It is important to define what a school stands for, and what the trade-offs are. Who wouldn’t say that a school should stand for excellence and high standards? But what are the trade-offs; what would a devil’s advocate say is the cost of this? Is it that teachers are over-worked, or is it less tolerance of variance in children’s learning styles or behaviour, or is it that only the top quartile of teachers should apply?
It is important that school leaders, and the governors who support them, know what their school strives for and prioritises, and ensures this is consistently reflected in behaviour and decision-making, particularly given the challenging times ahead.