The best solutions to any uncertainty, says Josephine Smith, are often those that can be found close to home. Here, she suggests how school leaders can steady the ship and ensure that there is no loss in staff motivation as another period of change gets underway

One of the common reasons good teaching staff give for not wanting to enter the world of school leadership is that politics gets in the way of leading a school’s development. Politics have certainly had a part to play over recent months since the general election. I don’t know about you, but I have now abandoned my car CD collection for the drive into school in order to catch the daily news bulletins on the latest coalition education plans, government cuts and economic reorganisation.

The government’s comprehensive spending review, announced on 20 October, was met with bated breath in my school. After a period of three years of significant change and development in the school anyway, due to local reorganisation, we were looking forward to getting on with the day job of day-to-day school improvement.

A period of calm and a chance to deliver all our well-crafted plans was what we hoped for as students entered the building in September. Instead, we found ourselves anxious about whether we could afford our commitments to VLE development and online reporting knowing of Becta’s demise; we had sleepless nights as ICT budgets were being squeezed. We wondered whether our school leadership programmes and support would still be there via the National College. We feared our exams office and middle leaders, new to the game of exam entries, GCSE assessment and curriculum design, would miss the support and advice of the QCDA.

Above all, we worried that the disappearing funding of an increasing number of organisations would mean that we would find ourselves having to ‘make do and mend’ or spend time trying to find homemade solutions to the services they had previously provided.

It was a relief to hear, therefore, that the schools budget is to increase from £35.4 to £39bn over the next four years and that compared to other government departments, education seems to have fared well, with funding for schools increasing by £3.6bn by the end of the spending review period.

The overall Department for Education budget, however, will decrease by £1.2bn over the four-year period with ‘frontline’ resources found from a 3% reduction in departmental resource spending and a 33% reduction in the department’s administration budget, including the culling of the several education quangos.

ICT: cutting costs while maintaining the ethos of innovative learning

Most schools will now have a managed learning environment (MLE) in place and will have trialled an online reporting system designed to enable parents to be up to date on their child’s progress, attendance and behaviour in school. This will not have come without cost and you have probably signed contracts with providers who supply these services.

Perhaps now is the time to see if you can go it alone to save costs. Can your MLE, for example, provide a system of online reporting with parents needing only the one MLE login to access details of their child’s successes? Perhaps your learning resource team or ICT technicians could be tasked with setting this system up for less cost than the annual contract charge? Why not look at the costs of your school internet service provider? Just as for domestic providers, the market is competitive. Perhaps using the county buy-in service is still the most cost-effective, reliable and safe but it might be worth investigating.

What about MLE content? Can uploading subject content here mean you don’t need to supply textbooks/past papers or other costly resources to students to take home, thereby reducing department capitation costs and using ICT as a cost-saving mechanism? Science textbooks, for example, can be expensive to maintain or replace, while an initial investment in time to upload relevant content to the MLE could mean the same material is available to students in a different format.

Streamlining information

Why not look at saving costs by streamlining all your school information management into one system? For example, ensure you aren’t employing staff to manage the rewards and sanctions systems outside other attendance and reporting software.

Becta’s role leading the effective use of technology in learning, safeguarding learners and engaging families will need to be transferred on a smaller scale to your school community. You could:

  • use the school improvement plan and associated monitoring schedules, such as department reviews and performance management processes, to focus on innovative ICT use in learning to teaching and support staff
  • develop a whole-school objective for MLE use which promotes student progress
  • use ICT advocates on your staff by setting up an ‘innovation forum’. This group of teaching and support staff can play a key role in CPD sessions that enthuse other colleagues and in turn students
  • ensure you schedule CPD time to e-learning and rather than looking outside for support, look to the expertise you already have in school. Observations and discussions with subject leaders will enable you to know where that expertise lies
  • use more ICT-literate staff to share their knowledge with less confident staff (this is often a great way to encourage your younger staff to take a first whole-school perspective)
  • appoint an e-safety representative from your senior team and set targets for parental engagement, including demonstrations to parents about how they can use their own online systems at home to keep their children safe online while enjoying learning
  • look to other organisations such as CEOP (Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre) which is affiliated to the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA)
  • use older students to promote e-learning and safety. They can demonstrate to staff the hazards younger students may fall prey to online, tell you which elements of the MLE are actually useful to them and suggest what would help them learn better. You could even pay Year 12-13 students to upload content onto your MLE at a low cost outside of school hours
  • set up a team of student ICT ambassadors as part of a student leadership programme and ask them to work with staff and other students.

Finally, look for cost-cutting areas in your school ICT budgets. Something as simple as a print management system should save the school pounds in terms of paper, ink and printer resources.

Following these suggestions won’t replace the national work, support or advice available from Becta but they are guaranteed to create an ICT culture in your school that will grow and develop its own momentum at a relatively low cost.

On the death of the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency

The Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA) maintains and develops the National Curriculum and associated assessments, tests and examinations. Regulatory functions regarding examination and assessment boards have already been transferred to Ofqual, the independent regulator. Secondary schools currently still look to the QCDA for examination delivery such as support for diploma awarding, centre support, general qualifications, online access arrangements and achievement and attainment tables, and so it is likely to be your examinations office who are most affected by QCDA’s demise.

QCDA also currently conducts national and international research and evaluation of curriculum, assessment and qualifications. As a senior leader working strategically on curriculum planning and design, you may want to develop other support systems. How about:

  • using your own contacts. Try to get into other schools and find out about their curriculum designs and timetabling methods to accommodate them
  • using your SIP to share his/her knowledge of other schools’ curriculum planning
  • establishing or developing your middle leaders or curriculum forum to regularly discuss curriculum review. Use papers from other schools/counties/countries to spark discussion
  • setting up a working party and tasking them with ‘blue sky thinking’ tasks. What would the ideal curriculum look like at your school? How would it enable students to be as successful as possible?
  • subscribing to Curriculum Management Update, a monthly newsletter with news, features and case studies for curriculum managers
  • subscribing to The Key, an online subscription service for school leaders which gives you access to thousands of documents from other schools and education specialists. You can even ask the site’s team specific questions and get answers back within three working days. You might ask about 14-19 curriculum development, for example, or condensed curriculum models for Key Stage 3
  • asking your local authority if they have any consultants’ hours available. As ex-school leaders they are often willing to share their expertise and experiences of curriculum and assessment models
  • if you are a specialist school, use the SSAT forums and meeting schedules to meet school leaders from similar schools whose brains you might be able to pick.

What about the National College?

Formerly the National College of School Leadership (NCSL), the National College is likely to have been used well in your school for its NPQH or ‘Leading from the Middle’ programmes. There is no firmer detail on how the funding cuts will affect the College but in times of need in headteacher recruitment and school leadership promotion, you might find yourself looking to develop links with other school leaders in as many ways as possible with an emphasis on support and leadership development. Why not:

  • regularly attend local authority headship groups or conferences
  • use SSAT invitations to gatherings of headteachers
  • make an informal or formal arrangement to mentor or be the mentee of an existing headteacher in your locality
  • write for publications like this to share your expertise with others.

What about partnership working?

Can partnership working continue to add value as you strive to make economies? An educational imperative of the previous government, partnership working and the added value it can bring seems to be surprisingly low key in any of the new government’s educational statements of intent. For example, the coalition’s Programme for Government, published in May, made no reference to partnership working, with more emphasis on parents’ and schools’ autonomy from the local authority via free schools or academies.

Partnership working must, however, form part of the answer to addressing cutbacks, not necessarily in the provision of additional services, which inevitably require the additional costs of staffing and resources, but in finding a local solution to some of the constraints imposed by reductions in national support services. Several suggestions are made above about how ICT, curriculum and leadership support can be found through partnerships, but schools forming partnerships might also:

  • create a professional development ‘exchange’ system for staff looking to develop their skills beyond their own classroom or school or searching for new fresh ideas for home-school improvement
  • share facilities or even staff to reduce duplication and save costs
  • share transport costs across a partnership of schools for students in Key Stage 4 or 5 and sustain less viable subject areas or facilitate a wider curriculum offer at limited extra cost
  • work together to access additional local or national funding streams, eg for Foundation Tier delivery
  • provide a network of accessible CPD of which local schools can share the costs, such as visiting speakers or invitations to shared in-house presentations or workshops
  • continue to use their school specialism(s) to share good practice.

All of these suggestions require time, effort and the drive of dedicated staff. Hopefully, however, they don’t look that remote from the good practice already in place in schools across the country. The key to leading your school forward while everyone is talking about cuts and uncertainty is by celebrating and encouraging the good work done every day by staff and students in your school.

Positivity and optimism (yes, even on a rainy, dark Monday in November) and a cheerful school leader evident around school corridors will have more day-to-day impact on any school than any government announcement. Fine-tuning systems already in place, reaching out to other schools to offer assistance as well as to seek it and reminding staff that they will make more difference to the students in their school than anyone else is worth far more than any government spending cut.

The comprehensive spending review at a glance

The comprehensive spending review has the following key implications for education:

  • A real terms increase of 0.1% pa in pupil funding over next four years, but this includes the pupil premium.
  • The introduction of the pupil premium, which will be around £2.5bn per annum. Only £800m of this will come from outside the education budget.
  • Due to the uneven distribution of the pupil premium, 60% of primary and 87% of secondary school pupils could be in schools where funding falls.
  • 40,000 teachers could lose their jobs.
  • Far fewer funds will be ring-fenced (for example, schools will still get their specialist school money, but will be able to spend it as they wish).
  • Funding for extended services and ancillary services from LAs is going to be tightly squeezed.

The DfE has also announced that it will be streamlining funding grants to generate better value for money but ‘ensuring that targeted support’ remains available to those who need it most. It highlights the following:

  • Ending education maintenance allowances, which the Department says have ‘deadweight costs of around 90%’, saving £0.5bn, and replacing them with targeted support for those who face genuine financial barriers to participation.
  • Within the schools budget, making procurement and back office savings, which will allow at least £1bn to be invested directly on frontline teaching, while the public sector pay freeze will free up an additional £1.1bn.
  • Ending and rationalising a range of centrally directed programmes and instead streamlining funding for the most vulnerable children and families in a new early intervention grant to ensure local authorities have greater flexibility.

Josephine Smith
is vice principal of a Leicestershire secondary school