February 2017

The know zone

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    Under the present Ofsted inspection system, schools that are rated ‘good’ only have to undergo a shorter day-long Ofsted inspection every three years. What are your views on this? What is your experience of short inspections? How well do you think they work? Here, ASCL members share their views. More
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    Focus on… National Careers Week 2017 More
  • Identifying children struggling to understand the written word
    It is easy to overlook, in any battery of statistics, the different patterns that lie behind the main conclusion. More
  • Leaders’ surgery
    Hotline advice expressed here, and in calls to us, is made in good faith to our members. Schools and colleges should always take formal HR or legal advice from their indemnified provider before acting. More
  • Generating income
    At a time when school budgets are under serious pressure and with some schools already hitting a financial ‘brick wall’, Business Leadership Specialist Val Andrew looks at ways in which schools could generate income to ease the burden. More
  • Close to the edge
    Small primary schools are facing a bleak financial future unless the government intervenes, says Julie McCulloch. More
  • Retiring thoughts
    Planning for retirement is something that many of us put off until we are almost at the age of retirement. Pensions Specialist Stephen Casey says it’s important that members prepare well in advance to avoid any nasty shocks. More
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Small primary schools are facing a bleak financial future unless the government intervenes, says Julie McCulloch.

Close to the edge

Last term, ASCL issued a stark warning that one-form entry primary schools and secondary schools with fewer than 600 pupils will ‘fall off a cliff’ financially unless they receive more funding. ASCL Interim General Secretary Malcolm Trobe implored the government to do something to help schools that will otherwise struggle to survive in the current financial climate.

The number of primary schools in this category is huge. A one-form entry school with 30 children in each year will have about 210 pupils but many schools are significantly smaller. About one-third of primaries in England (more than 5,000 schools) have fewer than 200 pupils and 12% have fewer than 100.

Some areas, depending on demographics and previous policy decisions, will have significantly higher percentages of small schools than others. In my neck of the woods, Oxfordshire, nearly 40% of primaries have fewer than 200 pupils.

‘Very dissatisfied’

School leaders are certainly feeling the financial pinch. The ASCL/Browne Jacobson 2016 School Leaders Survey (www.ascl.org.uk/budgetconcerns) showed that 94% were either ‘dissatisfied’ or ‘very dissatisfied’ with current government policies on funding and that 87% felt negative about the financial prospects for their schools over the next 12 months (a rise of 20% on the previous year).

Moreover, the pressure on school leaders to manage reduced or stagnant budgets has never been greater. In the current academic year, this will be a priority for 95% of school leaders and for more than two-thirds it will be a major priority. This number is the highest it’s been since the survey was first carried out.

What other options may leaders and governors of small primary schools consider to try to stay away from the cliff edge?

1. Cutting back on staff.

Staffing costs constitute by far the biggest percentage of every school’s budget. This is, of course, right – but in times of austerity, schools need to consider whether they can operate effectively with fewer staff. It is generally accepted that total staffing costs should not exceed 80% of available funding.

2. Increasing class sizes.

Many small primary schools, for very good reasons, have relatively small classes. Sometimes this is to do with practicality as much as ideology – school buildings designed for a different era may not physically be able to accommodate large classes. If it’s possible for you to increase class sizes, though, it’s worth exploring this – particularly given the increasing evidence that small classes don’t necessarily lead to better outcomes.

3. Introducing mixed-age classes.

For many small primary schools, cutting back on staff or increasing class sizes is likely to lead to the introduction of mixed-age classes, if they don’t already operate this way. This can feel daunting but it can have benefits beyond the financial, including encouraging teachers to work more collaboratively.

4. Sharing staff.

Small schools can find it difficult to fund the staff they need to offer a full range of curricular and extra-curricular activities. Could you reduce costs by sharing staff with other schools?

5. Generating more income.

Schools may be able to do more to boost their budgets by generating income. Many primary schools are already hubs of their local communities. Could you find ways to build on existing relationships by opening up the school to community groups in the evenings or hiring out resources? (Read the article by Val Andrew on income generation on page 30).

6. Formally partnering with other schools.

Academisation is certainly not a guarantee of financial stability (there was no difference in our survey between how leaders of maintained schools and those of academies felt about the current funding situation) and forming or joining a federation or multi-academy trust is unlikely to save money in the short term. In the medium- to long-term, though, being part of a group of schools, which can share central costs and take advantage of economies of scale, may be a key way for small schools to survive.

Small primary schools play a crucial role in many of our communities. To survive in the current financial climate, they’re going to need to take some tough decisions.

Further information

For more advice on managing challenging budgets, see:

Julie McCulloch is ASCL Primary and Governance Specialist