The Department of Education’s approach to managing the risks to schools’ financial sustainability cannot be judged to be effective or providing value for money until more progress is made, according to the National Audit Office.
The Department estimates that mainstream schools will have to find savings of £3.0 billion (8.0%) by 2019-20 to counteract cumulative cost pressures, such as pay rises and higher employer contributions to national insurance and the teachers’ pension scheme. It expects that schools will need to make efficiency savings through better procurement (estimated savings of £1.3 billion) and by using their staff more efficiently (the balance of £1.7 billion). However, the Department has not clearly communicated to schools the scale and pace of the savings required. While it can show, on the basis of benchmarking analysis, that schools should be able to achieve such savings without affecting educational outcomes, it does not know whether schools will achieve them in practice.
The Department’s overall schools budget is protected in real terms but does not provide for funding per pupil to increase in line with inflation. In the 2015 Spending Review, the government increased the schools budget by 7.7% from £39.6 billion in 2015-16 to £42.6 billion in 2019-20. While this increase protects the total budget from forecast inflation, the Department estimates that the number of pupils will rise over the same period, by 3.9% (174,000) in primary schools and by 10.3% (284,000) in secondary schools. Therefore, funding per pupil will, on average, rise only from £5,447 in 2015-16 to £5,519 in 2019-20, a real-terms reduction once inflation is taken into account.
The Department continues to develop and publish advice and guidance to help schools improve their financial management and achieve efficiency savings. It has made progress in some areas, including publishing benchmarking, efficiency tools and guidance, and providing access to framework contracts, such as for energy. However, it has not yet completed work to help schools secure crucial procurement and workforce savings. Without such support, there is a risk that schools may already be making poor decisions about how to cope with the financial pressures.
The National Audit Office’s analysis indicates that while the financial position of primary schools has been relatively stable, there are signs of financial challenges in secondary schools. The proportion of maintained secondary schools spending more than their income increased from 34% in 2010-11 to 59% in 2014-15, and the average size of deficit for those in deficit increased in real-terms from £246,000 to £326,000 during the same period. For secondary academies, the proportion spending more than their income rose from 39% in 2012/13 to 61% in 2014/15. The Department does not know with certainty why schools are overspending, or underspending to build up reserves, or for how long these patterns are sustainable.
The National Audit Office also found that the Education Funding Agency, which oversees the financial management of schools on the Department’s behalf, should intervene earlier and more often with local authorities when it has financial concerns about maintained schools. The Agency has a process for assessing financial risk in academies but its records make it difficult to gain assurance that all academies at potentially high risk have been dealt with consistently. It has also not evaluated the impact of its different financial interventions, whether it has improved academies’ longer-term financial sustainability or which interventions are most effective. The Agency is strengthening its oversight by developing a preventative approach to support academy trusts at risk of getting into financial difficulty.