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Fairer funding or financial catastrophe? Stephen Morales on challenging the status quo

I recently asked Stephen Morales, CEO of the National Association of School Business Management, for his view on the impact of recent funding issues on schools. 

Throughout the interview, Stephen was as measured and diplomatic as you would expect of someone in his position. NASBM is an organisation which represents members from some of the highest- and lowest-funded schools in the country, making the role of chief executive something of a poisoned chalice. 

Stephen must walk a tightrope between advocating for adequate baseline funding on the one hand, and challenging poor or inefficient practice at individual, school and system level on the other. 

Clearly, he will be able to please all of his constituencies only some of the time.

Headteachers, governors and politicians of all stripes claim that there is a ‘financial crisis’ in education. As the leader of the professional body for school finance professionals, what is your view? Are these claims credible?

Stephen: ‘Is this is a financial catastrophe? No. But will some schools have to make so tough choices? Yes.'

'I don’t see the so-called “funding crisis” as a cliff-edge: perhaps more of a slope. Inevitably in a tight fiscal environment, schools will have to pare back some of their provision. Furthermore, if we don’t get the new national funding formula right then some schools will suffer more than others.

We also understand that while many education leaders have called for an increase in the total amount of public money available to schools, particularly in light of new cost pressures, we should not be deterred from taking an equitable and rational approach to the way we distribute the money we’re given.’

The National Audit Office recently published a report indicating that schools will face real term cuts of between 8-10%. What are the implications of this?

‘We know that many schools have been working towards efficient saving over the years. Certainly no school leadership team sets out to be inefficient or wasteful, and no one wants to see standards fall as a result of austerity. 

However, it is probably fair to say some schools’ strategies have been more effective than others, particularly in the areas such as:

  • stream-lined processes
  • an improved approach to organisational design
  • the effective procurement of goods and services.

Once all other options, such as collaboration or restructuring, have been exhausted, it may be that some activities become victims of this new environment.’

You talk of efficiencies; where might some of these be found?

‘The multi-academy trust environment provides new opportunities for savings, aggregation of effort and economies of scale. However, there are also examples of exceptional practice being carried out in some standalone schools.

Some of the lowest-funded schools in the country have managed their resources remarkably well, given that they operated for decades with, in some cases, nearly half the per-pupil funding of other schools.’

How have these schools been able to save so much?

‘In all cases, access to a skilled business professional has made the difference. Someone who can work closely with colleagues, and plan budgets so that they’re realistic and sustainable.’

Do you think that the authority to decide how best to run schools lies with civil servants at the DfE or school leaders themselves? 

‘I believe that it is the responsibility of school leaders to navigate these treacherous waters, and to ensure that the school meets the best possible outcomes for children and young people in their care.’

Does this mean that NASBM is not clamouring loudly for more money for education?

‘While I’m not suggesting we give up on our effort to secure a better deal for education, we should not underestimate the increased pressure on public services (the NHS in particular) caused in part by Brexit.

We need to ensure that schools across the country have sufficient funds to deliver the core curriculum to all their pupils, and support those with special educational needs.

My worst fear is that reforming school funding will become unpalatable for some MPs if they encounter too much resistance. We would then end up with the status quo: no improvements to the funding framework and no extra money for schools.’

What is your view of the proposals put forward by the DfE in the second consultation round on the proposed national funding formula?

‘NASBM is very supportive of the reforms to school funding, and we applaud the government for their work on developing a new formula.’

So, have the DfE got the elements of the formula right? What do you think about the relative weightings?

‘The DfE’s approach to developing a new formula has been open yet forensic. We believe that the structure and rank order of the factors is fair, however there is perhaps still some work to be done and discussions to be had about the weightings attributed to some of those factors.’ 

Are you in favour of the proposals?

‘I think that most parents would be happy if they felt a national funding formula firstly addressed the core provision of education. In other words, every school in the country should be in a position to offer the core curriculum to all pupils, irrespective of their needs and the area of the country in which they live.’

And the formula will do this?

‘The current proposals have attempted to widen the deprivation range to encompass more families characterised recently as those ‘just about managing’, and this in turn has limited the funds available for basic (or core) entitlement.

The government’s challenge will be getting this balance right after the consultation period that runs for just another four weeks.’

Of course, some children need considerably more support than just ‘basic need’ or the core curriculum offer. What are your views on this?

‘The formula needs to give careful consideration to the funding allocated beyond core provision, for instance to address additional needs or deprivation. Clearly some areas of the country (and indeed individual schools) have altogether more challenging experiences, and this is at the nub of the current debate around the weightings.

As previously suggested, we must ensure that schools across the country have sufficient funds to deliver a core curriculum to all of their pupils, and all pupils with additional needs are properly supported.’

The second consultation stage of the national funding formula began on the 14th December and will end at 5.00pm on 22nd March 2017. 

The National Association of School Business Management (NASBM) is the professional body for school business leadership and management professionals in England and Wales. It is in the process of converting to the Institute of School Business Leadership.

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