The Public Accounts Committee has warned that school standards in England are at risk as schools are required to make savings during the most significant financial pressure since the mid-1990s.
The MPs concluded that the Department for Education “does not seem to understand the pressures that schools are already under” and is not well-placed to act swiftly if efficiency measures threaten the quality of education and its outcomes.
Funding per pupil is falling in real terms and, if they are to manage within the funds available, mainstream schools in England must find efficiency savings rising from £1.1 billion in 2016-17 to £3 billion by 2019-20.
The Department believes schools can save £1.3 billion by better procurement and the £1.7 billion balance by using staff more efficiently, but the PAC said: “The actions schools take are likely to increase teachers’ workload, with implications for recruitment and retention, and put at risk the quality of education.”
The Department does not seem to have a plan to monitor in real-time how schools are making savings and their impact, instead relying on existing information such as Ofsted inspections and exam results. But the report said: “These indicators are time lagged and we may not know the full impact on educational outcomes until 2021 when the new GCSE results come through. This will be too late for the children who are in school now.”
The PAC also raised concerns about the Education Funding Agency’s approach, which means it does not intervene as often as it should, and the Department’s savings estimates, which it found do not properly consider the impact of policy changes on cost pressures – for example, curriculum changes that require new textbooks and materials.
It also highlighted the additional cost to schools of the new apprenticeship levy, the financial impact of which has not been set out by Government and from which schools “will only be able to benefit in a limited way”.
The committee warned that the Department does not seem to be learning from the experience of other sectors, “in particular from how over-ambitious efficiency targets in the NHS proved counter-productive”.
Schools facing reduced spending power need to reconcile financial, workforce and quality expectations, and the Department must help them manage the risks.
PAC chair Meg Hillier said: “Pupils’ futures are at risk if the Department fails to act on our warnings. It sets out more evidence of what increasingly appears to be a collective delusion in Government about the scope for further efficiency savings in public services.
“Unrealistic efficiency targets imposed on the NHS, together with weak leadership from the centre, have caused long-term damage to the finances of NHS trusts struggling to meet increasing demand. Government must not allow this to happen in schools but there are troubling similarities in its approach – similarities the Department for Education is unwilling to recognise.
“It must not be deaf to head teachers who have already had to make potentially damaging cuts in areas such as maintenance, teacher recruitment and pastoral services.”
She added: “Grand plans drawn up in Whitehall are dangerous if they are implemented without regard to real-world consequences and we will expect to see measures to address our concerns as a matter of urgency.”