Schools are facing a financial crisis – but where’s the evidence?


Originally posted on Schools Week.

When I started inspecting for Ofsted in 1995 as a seconded headteacher, I recall significant discussions about adequacy and sufficiency of resources. A quick search of inspection reports around that time highlights how direct inspectors were in reporting that some subjects had insufficient books or that the quality of the available resources hindered pupils’ learning.  This was a time when a lack of investment in education was seriously affecting school performance.

It is not surprising that the chief inspector’s annual report for 1996/7 drew attention to ‘shortages in books and equipment affect(ing) teaching adversely in one in four secondary and one in ten primary schools’ and that ‘the vagaries of resource allocation meant that the school had not received sufficient funding to do the job it was expected to do’. Pretty damning stuff.

There was major investment in school resources following New Labour’s 1997 election win under the ‘education, education, education’ banner. Ofsted continued to consider resources. But from then they did so under a ‘best value’ approach; specific investigations into adequacy and sufficiency were considered as part of this.

The introduction of the 2005 inspection framework shortened inspections and shifted emphasis towards the accuracy of a school’s self-evaluation. It also placed the responsibility for effective use of resources with the governing body. Then in 2010 the coalition Government ran a campaign to eradicate unnecessary burdens on schools. Laudable, but in the effort they removed the online self-evaluation form (SEF) which contained pre-populated financial information about the school. Instead, schools were asked to share their budget details with the lead inspector at the time of their inspection.

As the country entered a period of austerity and major cuts were made to education budgets, it was perhaps convenient for the government that inspectors were not being asked to report specifically on the adequacy and sufficiency of resources. This didn’t stop inspectors from reporting on it if they found it to be a problem, but their focus was elsewhere. A review of the chief inspector’s annual report for 2014/15 reveals only four references to ‘resources’ and none about ‘best value’. By this time the inspection of resources had largely been obliterated and was no longer considered important.

So where is Ofsted now with regard to inspecting and reporting without fear or favour on school resources? Currently, inspectors are asked to consider if governors have a secure understanding of whether resources are managed well. This doesn’t challenge inspectors to consider whether there are sufficient, high-quality resources available for all pupils. It’s just evaluating whether the school is doing well with the resources they’ve got.

A review I undertook of over 300 recent school inspection reports makes clear that inspectors are not reporting on the issue of resources at all. Conversations I held with a number of headteachers from these schools also revealed that resources were never raised as an issue in formal feedback at their most recent inspection.

Yet we know there are gaping holes in current school resource provision. A good example is the welcome investment of £150 million for improvements in digital connectivity. A large number of schools – particularly those in more remote areas – don’t have a broadband connection strong enough to run more than just a few digital devices at any one time. Surely inspectors ought to have noticed this during their inspection work, but time and again such issues appear to be ignored.

As a result, the current chief inspector simply lacks the data to even report on gaps in sufficiency and quality of resources in her next annual report – let alone to be as sharply critical as Chris Woodhead in 1997.

At a time of unprecedented financial challenges for schools that are likely to worsen before (hopefully) improving, ministers may not want to hear the unvarnished truth about school resourcing. They may not want the public to hear it. But isn’t the point of Ofsted at least in part to report on the obstacles schools face in delivering the goals they are set?

Maybe it’s time to dust down those ‘old’ inspection frameworks.


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