At What Cost? (Rediscovered)

This blog was written sometime in early 2012 as one of the first things I did for the National Education Trust. Rediscovering it now, it seems that the points raised still have currency and in some cases reflect the challenges we have faced and continue to face as a result of a reduction in funding, so I thought that it might be worth sharing it once again. 

The recent report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, ‘Trends in education and schools spending’, has indicated that education spending is projected to fall by 3.5% in real terms year on year until 2014/15, potentially the largest reduction in any four year period.

The government has indicated that currently, the cash reduction in schools’ year on year budgets should not exceed 1.5%, but the impact of this on schools is potentially far more significant. The 1.5% can only be applied to approximately 20% of the budget, unless you look at reducing front line staff, causing the impact on spending flexibility to be more like a 7.5% reduction.

This, coupled with a significant exposure to utility cost inflation as a proportion of spending and general inflation running at over 5%, makes it all the more likely that protracted funding reductions will impact on the ability of schools to continue to develop their provision.

But what of special schools, trying to mitigate the impact of financial change on some of society’s most vulnerable children? What might the effect of reduced finances be on special schools’ ability to continue to develop educational provision in the face of increasing need and increasing complexity of need?

Promotion of inertia

The wider development of professional knowledge may begin to slow as schools focus constrained CPD budgets on statutory training requirements such as manual handling, physical intervention and paediatric first aid.

The investment in ‘alternatives’ may also begin to reduce as schools become more financially risk averse. The institution’s ability to spend on the potential of pedagogical development reduces, and the focus becomes more directed towards known outcomes.

The school’s ability to meet the needs of children with highly specialised requirements may begin to reduce as they become less able to invest in high cost but low use resourcing, resourcing which can have a transformative impact on children, but not necessarily on a large number of them.

Compromising the status quo

The existing knowledge level may begin to be eroded as schools decide not to replace staff who leave, absorbing additional workloads internally. Newly appointed staff may take longer to reach an appropriate performance threshold due to reduced access to professional development opportunities. This in turn may affect the school’s capacity to improve more broadly, as school leaders focus more on trying to fill the emerging capability gap.

 

Schools’ capacity to improve may become further influenced by the internalisation and concentration of workload, due to fewer staff to delegate to and less experienced staff to provide wider support.

Existing resource impact levels may begin to drop, as special schools are unable to meet the replenishment needs caused by wear and tear, or through not being able to invest in wider resource development. This could reduce the flexibility of resourcing and may impact upon the staff’s repertoire of methodologies, potentially leading to pedagogical decisions being influenced by what we have rather than by what we need.

Broader decisions might begin to be taken from an economically dominated position, rather than from a pedagogically dominated one. The budget begins to take precedent over the child.

Regression of standards

Institutional competency could begin to reduce as a result of professional knowledge gaps being unable to be filled. This might be magnified by the impact of developments in medical care, leading to more children with highly complex needs reaching school age.

Schools may become less able to meet the needs of their pupils due to a lack of investment in the future and the inability to maintain existing levels of staffing knowledge.

In the longer term, this may have a greater degree of impact upon wider support needs, as pupils potentially leave school with a reduced degree of independence, leading to a higher degree of reliance upon social services and state financial support, further influenced by a reduced number entering employment.

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The above might be considered as potentially a loose chronology, but not an inevitable one, nor one which would be consistent across institutions or even within them. However it is difficult to see how the progression of a field of expertise such as SEN, which is driven by the individuality of the child, can be sustained with funding levels reducing over a protracted period of time. A time during which the need for the provision is increasing.

Although mitigating the impact of financial change on this scale is a new role for many school leaders, and a challenging one, a broader awareness of these potential risks hopefully equips us with a greater capability to overcome them.

After all, our responsibility is to the children, and the decisions we make must be made with their best interests in mind.

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