Keeping the wolf from the door – Can schools expand curriculum while facing funding drop?

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In what some would say was a proactive move, and others cite as another lot of hot air, education secretary, Michael Gove commissioned a comprehensive review of vocational education in England.  The final report was published on 3rd March 2011 and is known as ‘The Wolf’ report’, named after Professor Alison Wolf who headed up the study.  But while many of its recommendations may be constructive, with the best intentions of resolving the ‘crisis’ that exists in our youth labour market, many leaders now face the challenge of funding the recommended changes while, in the light of budget cuts, keeping the wolf literally from the door of their institutions.

It has been just over a year since this report was published.  Very few educational managers can heavily disagree that the education of our young people needed a ‘spring clean’ in order to better prepare them for our highly competitive employment market, but the timing cleverly meant that a report encouraging investment to expand and refine experiential learning and vocational qualifications, landed right before the chancellor presented his budget a few weeks later.  So while parents cheered with delight, hoping for a brighter future for their teenagers, and employers cheered with relief that there might finally be clarity over what the various qualification acronyms mean, many teachers rolled their eyes wondering if this report would result in some mass overhaul similar to that brought about by The Education Reform Act 1988, with lots of extra paperwork for them.  Meanwhile school managers were left wondering how to make substantial savings from school budgets long squeezed and already stretched.

Schools have long been encouraged to resource share by becoming ‘specialist’ schools in specific subjects.  The idea being that a specialist school might resource up that area to a high standard, and then share it with other local schools, who, in turn might share their ‘specialist’ provisions and so on.  In practice this was always going to be problematic while schools were pitched against each other in performance league tables and quietly ‘competing’ for the best students to enrol on their courses.  Naturally each institution would be protective of its own students and their achievements, and perhaps the ‘secrets’ that lent to gaining them, including double examination entry to a variety of ‘new’ style courses that would count towards the schools overall mark. Team that with the logistics of ferrying young people between sites, in many cases at quite an expense in terms of time and transport.  The realism is that this was never a fully viable option for many schools, let alone those in more rural areas with poor public transport links.

Schools are long used to adapting to change, be it a curriculum overhaul or new government social initiative, but doing so without funding to fuel ‘change’ or to support it is quite a different challenge.  Schools face a budget cut of 1% of their overall income.  A meagre amount some may say, but not when you look at the actual figure up close.  An average secondary school of 800 pupils collect revenue of about £4.5 million a year; a 1% cut in that funding means nearly half a million pounds worth of savings to be found.  Where?

The primary resource, and approximately 70% of the budget of any school is paid to its teaching staff so it might be unwise to shave 10-20 teachers off the salary budget, but undoubtedly schools may think before replacing retiring or leaving teaching staff in order to absorb some costing.  At the very least this may mean a very upward trend of taking on cheaper NQT’s to fill gaps rather than paying the extra ten thousand pounds an experienced teacher can command.  Expansion or improvement in the provision of vocational courses may require staff with different skills, but if any school was hoping to save pennies by paying ‘unqualified’ staff trained in further education, but whose QTLS qualification was not acknowledged by schools, then Wolf’s recommendations make it clear that those staff should now be recognised as qualified for secondary education in the future.  The whole infrastructure of schools may well be slimmed as support staffing, a sector that covers roles from caretaking to administration, is clipped and trimmed back.  In business they alluringly call this ‘slim-lining’, whereas in education it can feel more like staffing starvation, leading to exhaustion as roles formerly undertaken by one person are absorbed by those remaining.

Value for money will become key in deciding how cash is spent, which invariably might raise the game of exam boards competing for our confidence, CPD courses that offer more than a day out and a stale biscuit will become the order of the day.  Some schools may look creatively at shaving down the cost of their fuel consumption bills, but with a halt on new build programs that too means some are using sticky tape to shore up the sticky tape that was last used to block the holes in the buildings where the wind and rain come in.

So when we are faced with ‘resourcing’ and raising the standard of our vocational teaching as the report guides us to do, the timing of a large budget cut can only hamper our ability to do so.  We’re not just talking high tech equipment, or a qualified and experienced member of staff’s salary, but a range of costings that contribute towards the provision of enabling a good experience for students.  Head teachers, now more than ever, will be challenged to be effective financial managers, and schools challenged to be run with business level efficiency in a bid to make the many recommendations viable and a working reality.

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