In times of austerity and budget cuts, its important to identify where money can do the most good in schools

By Maire Williams

Tuesday 23 January 2018

On Tuesday 16 January, Westminster Education Forum held an event to discuss the hot topic of school funding. The day consisted of a mix of presentations from teachers, researchers and policy professionals, including a keynote speech by Tony Foot, Director of the Education Funding group at DfE. One of the clear messages coming out of the event was the high level of concern around current budgets, something teachers and governors reported as already being stretched far too thin.

Both presenter and audience comments included personal experiences of schools reducing staff to make their budgets work, with particular concerns over the levels of high needs funding being raised.

It wasn’t just practitioners who were concerned. Researchers also reported similar findings, including NFER’s Head of International Education, Ben Durbin. He noted that while schools in England are well funded compared to other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, headteachers in England still report difficulties with resourcing and staff recruitment. Also, while funding seems to have little impact on differences in outcomes between countries, it does appear to have an impact on within country differences in outcomes. This last point was substantiated in NFER’s new literature review School Funding in England Since 2010 – What the Key Evidence Tells Us, published last week, which found that additional resources have a modest but positive impact on attainment at the primary school level.

NFER’s school funding report also found that the observed benefits of higher spending are typically greater for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. By itself, this raises important questions around what impact tightened budgets and cuts may have on social mobility. These questions grow when combined with the finding that full implementation of the new National Funding Formula (NFF) would see funding shifted away from the most disadvantaged to the so-called ‘just about managing’ group. While we know the NFF definitely won’t be fully implemented before 2019-20, what will happen after this point is unclear. As such, some disadvantaged schools may well face further cuts.

Additionally, while the pupil premium is distributed outside the NFF and our research indicates that it is currently being put to good use, further cuts to overall school funding may limit its success. This is because as schools budgets continue to be stretched, schools feel increasingly forced to use the pupil premium to cover day-to-day costs for all pupils, diluting its impact.

The pupil premium also serves to illustrate the importance of looking not only at the levels of funding but also how money is being spent. Evaluations such as those by the Education Endowment Foundation have shown some initiatives funded by the pupil premium to be far more effective and to offer greater value for money than others. This fits well with Tony Foot’s closing statement at the event: ‘in times of austerity and budget cuts, it’s important to identify where money can do the most good.’ Our new report notes more work needs to be done to understand where and how money can best be spent, and this is an area into which NFER will continue to investigate and build our expertise.