The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Sue Birchall

Short-changed: the future of the small school in financial hardship

In a time of ever-shrinking budgets, there is evidence that smaller schools are beginning to feel the financial pinch a little more than the rest of us.

A report by the BBC highlights concerns previously raised by the ACSL that smaller schools ‘will fall off a cliff’ before the next round of changes brought about by the fairer funding formula in 2018. It draws on advice from the Institute of Fiscal Studies that current budget restraints and real-time cuts of up to 8% per pupil will likely have a detrimental effect on smaller schools.

We are well aware that with rising employment costs and inflationary pressures set against a reduced budget, schools and academies everywhere are ‘feeling the pinch’.

This could be one of the government's education policy aims: encouraging schools to pull together in times of thrift. But putting conjecture aside, where does this leave our smaller cousins?

The proposed National Funding Formula, stage 2 of which is now up for consultation, looks set to shake up funding for everyone. From 2019 it is proposed that local authorities (LAs) will no longer have a direct role in allocating funding, leaving the responsibility to the EFA. The location factor will still remain but we can expect to see some standardisation.

For smaller schools, this will take away the discretionary payments that LAs have historically allocated to support them.

Small school sustainability

We are not in a position to increase our core business to cover rising costs

What constitutes a small school? There is no set definition, but in terms of business management I would suggest it could be defined as a school with so few pupils that the income that does not cover its core costs. This makes remaining sustainable a considerable challenge.

While I disagree that business principles cannot be applied to the education sector, with our limited access to additional funding some compromise is needed. We are not in a position to increase our core business to cover rising costs.

The question then has to be: how are smaller schools to cope with providing the quality of education outcomes against a backdrop of financial hardship?

Safety in numbers?

How do small schools develop effective partnerships? Optimus members can read this guide from consultant Neil Short. 

It is true that there is no more money to be found in education and schools have to cope with the fact that their location and cohort can have a massive impact on their income. Of course, to some degree this will change under the new arrangements.

I certainly believe that the best way to create more money in education is through better strategic planning and efficiencies. However, sometimes that can only be achieved through collaboration and working together.

Should smaller schools look to work more collaboratively or even academise?

I certainly believe that the best way to create more money in education is through better strategic planning and efficiencies

Research carried out in the US has shown a direct correlation between improved attendance and achievement in smaller schools. This makes for interesting reading, and suggests that larger schools may not necessarily benefit from an economy of scale.

There is evidence that within the more pastoral environment pupils and teachers feel more included, recognised and safe which leads to improved outcomes. The trust that I work in supports the smaller school model and encourages it in its secondary academies and certainly is achieving better results year on year.

As always our aim is to reach a balance between outcomes and budgets, and a whole-sector approach seems prudent to ensure that a good and consistent education is available to all. 

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