Budget and resources in schools: An update

It is human nature to seek the assurance that you are not too out of line with your peers. Therefore, in the last issue of Education Business, we invited Mark Rosser, of the British Educational Suppliers Association, to examine research into the current levels of resources and budgets in schools, focusing on technology. This month, Mark considers non-technology resources.

As mentioned last month, schools’ current view of the adequacy of their budgets was relatively polarised but with a slight reduction in the number of schools who feel their budget is satisfactory. We likened this stance to Goldilocks and the three bears, with some feeling their technology budget was just the right size balanced against those feeling it’s too small.

BESA’s Resources in English Maintained Schools survey in January 2016 attracted responses from 776 schools (512 primary and 265 secondary), making the findings highly statistically viable. It is therefore safe to assume, that the collated views are indicative of those in all schools.

When we turn our attention to their view of general resources (non-technology) including money for furniture, stationery, teachers, buildings, support staff and continuing professional development (CPD)/training, the ‘bowl’ appears to be a little too small. Between 2015 and 2016, we’ve see an increasing number of schools dissatisfied with their budgets. The bottom line is that there is currently a high level of uncertainty in schools in terms of their learning resource budgets.

Back in November 2014, head teachers were asked to identify the impact of budget uncertainty. In comparison to the findings for 2014/15, the views of both primary and secondary schools changed significantly over the year. There was more concern over premises costs in primary schools, but less concern over staffing and learning resources. In comparison, secondary schools had significantly less concern for these costs during 2015/16. In contrast, there was more concern over the ability to fund learning resources, with over a quarter of secondary schools showing a low level of confidence.

The uncertainty continues
Only five per cent of primary schools and four per cent of secondary schools have a positive outlook over the next three years, which is naturally affecting their purchasing plans. This compares to a positive outlook held by nine and eight per cent respectively last year.

When asked which areas of expenditure this uncertainty would affect, it appears to mostly be premises costs. 37 per cent of primary schools and 35 per cent of secondary schools said that this would feel the greatest impact from their budget uncertainty.

Thankfully, the amount of detailed information gathered in the survey means we can dig a little deeper into the areas of expenditure upon which this uncertainty is likely to have the greatest impact.

Looking first at primary schools, there has been little change in their view on the sufficiency of suitable furniture and storage over the last year and therefore there are few expectations for a change in expenditure. There are slight indications that the number feeling they have an insufficient amount of furniture is decreasing, but this is marginal. The findings suggest that only 27 per cent of primary head teachers feel they are under-equipped with furniture and storage.

When we examine the views of secondary schools however, there is slightly less satisfaction; 39 per cent feel they are under-equipped, an increase from 27 per cent the previous year. Of course if you look at this the other way around, a healthy 55 per cent of primary schools and 57 per cent of secondary schools agree or strongly agree that they have adequate furniture funding to provide a suitable teaching and learning environment. While this is a reduction from the 57 per cent of primaries and 68 per cent of secondaries who held the same view last year, the majority of schools still have a positive perception.

For the purposes of this research, the surveyed schools were also asked to give their views on other areas of spending focus, which includes teachers, assistants, support staff, buildings, refurbishment, teaching aids, books, equipment and CPD/training. In many of these areas there were only minor shifts in spending focus, but in others the changes are more marked.

CPD and training
The biggest changes noted were in CPD and training. While back in the academic year 2014/15, 55 per cent of primary schools and 38 per cent of secondary schools said this would be a focus in budgets, this year we are seeing seven per cent of primary schools reducing their spending. Secondary schools are doing the opposite; they are seeing a three per cent increase in their CPD and training spend.

When Tim Oates, director of assessment research and development at exam board Cambridge Assessment, was asked to use his school curriculum expertise to lead the government’s review of the national curriculum, his international research highlighted the importance of high quality textbooks in realising the aims of national curricula and supporting effective teaching.

In 2014, the research reveals that schools in the high preforming jurisdictions (including Shanghai, Singapore and Finland) focus all lesson content on the use of high quality textbooks. In turn, Schools Minister Nick Gibb called for the ‘renaissance’ of textbooks which he believed had been impacted by an ‘ideological hostility’ and replaced by worksheets and lesson plans.

It appears now that secondary schools are heeding his advice. We are seeing a greater emphasis on books (27 per cent of secondary schools cite books as a purchasing priority). Again there is a disparity between primary and secondary schools’ views. While 24 per cent of primary schools say that books are a spending focus for the next year, this is a decrease from 2015.

Moving on from this, it is interesting to consider which areas of the curriculum schools are investing in; you would assume it to be the core subjects (English, maths and science). This includes the purchase of teaching resources and books. In both primary and secondary schools, as expected, there is a strong shift to focusing budgets on maths resources (a purchasing priority for 24 per cent of primary schools and 27 per cent of secondary schools). However in all other areas, there appears to be a move away from increasing investment; particularly in science, English and literacy. 12 per cent of primary schools are moving away from investing in English resources and 13 per cent are doing the same with science.

This appears to be replaced with expenditure in geography and art & design. Apart from an increasing investment in maths books and resources, secondary schools are moving their attention away from all other curriculum areas. Of course there will still be a significant amount of investment in curriculum resources, but it is when this is compared to previous years that we see a decline in focus.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Foundation Stage, we see the opposite; there is an increasing focus of expenditure in all areas of the curriculum. The priority for resource purchasing is clearly set on literacy, and to a lesser extent, numeracy. However, the focus on English has been largely static over time, while the purchasing focus on maths has been increasing each year. The 2016/17 priorities are expected to continue the focus on literacy.

Interestingly, expenditure on teachers, assistants and support staff generally shows a reduction in focus. Although minor, primary schools and secondary schools said there would be a small reduction in spending focus on teachers and teaching assistants. The same applied to primary schools’ view on support staff but secondary schools showed a small increase in spending in this area.

Building and refurbishment
Now we are in the post ‘Building Schools for the Future’ decade, it is interesting to see how schools are coping, and the pressure they are under to keep their buildings refurbished. Building and refurbishment has a strong focus for both primary and secondary schools but what we are seeing is a slight decrease in secondary schools with five per cent diverting their expenditure away from buildings and two per cent moving away from refurbishment.

Of course, there are many pressures on school budgets, with priorities shifting as financial circumstances and development plans change. When we look to the 2016-2017 academic year, schools are forecasting less of a dramatic shift in priorities from previous years.

Decline or improve?
Although head teachers and finance managers do not have details of their own budget allocations for 2016/17, they do have an overall understanding of the formulas and how their funds will be determined and allocated.

It certainly appears that optimism about funding over the next year in both primary and secondary schools will fall. In the case of primary schools there remains a greater proportion that are positive about funding for next year, than identified in the secondary sector.

However, the proportion is significantly lower, with only 35 per cent agreeing with the ‘positive about adequate funding’ statement, which compares to 44 per cent in the previous review. In the case of secondary schools, the shift into greater negative sentiment is less marked; however, this is due to the already low base of opinion. Less than a quarter of secondary schools are optimistic about funding for the next financial year.

Therefore at present, the view is that there may have to be decisions made by head teachers over how funds are reallocated in 2016/17. Hopefully our analysis of the findings from our Resources in English Maintained Schools report will give you some peace of mind in terms of where your school sits when compared with others. While the outlook is not great, it appears that schools are doing well in managing the budgets they have, efficiently and effectively.

Further information