Five years of hunger

By Geoff Gee - Part of our Election 2015 blog series

Tuesday 2 December 2014

2009 was only five years ago, but it seems longer. Ed Balls was still Secretary of State for Children Schools and Families. The first book in the Hunger Games series was just out in paperback. The Audit Commission had a series of publications titled Valuable Lessons: their subject was value for money in schools, rather than adolescent combat-to-the-death in a dystopian future.

That could be why, in 2014, the Valuable Lessons series has a rather lower profile than the Hunger Games. It could also be to do with how far the policy environment and the discussion of value for money in the education system have moved on in five years.

Looking back at the Audit Commission analysis and guidance from 2009 and comparing it to last year’s DfE Review of Efficiency in the Schools System highlights that some key factors have not changed. For example, both documents continue to emphasise the importance of:

• collaboration between schools
• using benchmarking to inform purchasing
• the role of governors in challenging financial decisions.

In contrast, there are areas where things have moved on. In 2009, the Audit Commission observed, for example, that schools had ‘little comparative information on costs or how workforce deployment affects outcomes for children’. The 2013 DfE review pointed to evidence of what works cost-effectively for disadvantaged pupils in the Sutton Trust- Education Endowment Foundation Teaching and Learning Toolkit. This covers 34 detailed topics, such as class size or one-to-one tuition. Each is summarised in terms of their average impact on attainment, the strength of the evidence supporting them and their cost; the Toolkit is updated on a regular basis. Another development is in relation to the academies programme: schools are required to produce an annual value for money statement, and DfE has published a Framework ‘to show the basis on which the department will seek to assess these reforms and their effect on the wider school system’. And the current House of Lords Committee on affordable childcare includes in its terms of reference value for money in government spending on early years.

Professor Robert Coe of Durham University, in what is perhaps an understatement, suggests that evidence on issues of value for money in education ‘is sometimes not as secure or generalisable as we might like’. But there is progress. This is underlined by a flurry of recent work which adds to our understanding of spending in schools and across the education system more generally, which includes the following.

• Spending it Wisely, a report published by the Nuffield Foundation, which analyses the impact of different types of spending on groups of students in secondary schools.
• An examination, by the National Audit Office of the costs and effectiveness of the system for oversight and intervention in schools.
• Research led by the Institute for Fiscal Studies in collaboration with the NFER and the London Institute of Education, which provides the first estimates of the likely costs and benefits involved in providing teacher training across different routes.

For the future, there is no sign that any political party will campaign in the general election on the basis of cutting school spending. There is though a shared assumption of future unspecified public spending austerity. Lord Nash, in a recent speech, warns us that, whatever the political complexion of the next government, ‘one of the biggest challenges facing the school system [is that] schools will increasingly have to do more with the same money’.

So where are we likely to be with work on value for money in education by the end of the next Parliament in 2020? Where do we need to be? Let’s start with some optimistic, but hopefully realistic, planning assumptions.

There will be pressures on education budgets that keep value for money a high priority.

There will be a recognition from the incoming government of the value of evidence-informed education which will enable work on value for money to make further progress.

There won’t be a call to identify some Year 11s as sacrificial tributes.