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Whitehall ‘does not understand’ severity of declining school standards, say PAC

Education standards at schools in England are at risk of spiralling further into decline should the Department for Education continue with its harsh series of funding cuts coupled with unrealistic efficiency targets, a report released by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has warned.

The report slammed the department, arguing it “does not seem to understand the pressures that schools are already under” and was not well-placed to act quickly to improve school standards should cost-cutting measures prove to have a negative impact on schools.

“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,” said the PAC. “This will be too late for the children who are in school now.”

The committee also warned that schools were currently facing the most significant financial pressure since the 1990s, with funding per pupil having dropped considerably in real terms.

DfE believes that schools can save £1.3bn through better procurement and £1.7bn by using staff more efficiently, but PAC’s report counter-argued that the squeeze on budgets caused by these targets means many schools are allowing standards to slip.

The influential committee also raised concerns that lessons were not being learnt from other sectors, “in particular from how over-ambitious efficiency targets in the NHS proved counter-productive”.

Its outspoken chair, Meg Hillier MP, said: “Pupils' futures are at risk if the DfE fails to act on the warnings in our report.

“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.”

She argued that unrealistic efficiency targets imposed on the NHS, combined with weak leadership, had caused long-term damage to the finances of trusts struggling to meet increasing demand – and that the government should not allow the same to happen to the nation’s schools.

“It must not be deaf to the experiences of head teachers who, as we heard in evidence, have already had to make potentially damaging cuts in areas such as maintenance, teacher recruitment and pastoral services,” said Hillier.

“The Education Funding Agency’s record on intervention, as well as its failure to evaluate whether its interventions are helping schools to address financial risk, does not inspire confidence.”

The PAC chair also called on Whitehall officials to take all necessary steps to ensure they can intervene quickly if action taken by schools to meet efficiency targets risk damaging standards.

“That means properly monitoring in real-time performance as well as spending, making use of frontline indicators such as class sizes, the ratio of pupils to teachers and the breadth of the curriculum,” 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."

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We will study the report’s recommendations and respond in due course.  Standards in our schools are rising with 1.8 million more pupils being taught in good or outstanding schools than in August 2010.

"We have protected the core schools budget in real terms since 2010, with school funding at its highest level on record at more than £40bn in 2016-17 – and that is set to rise, as pupil numbers rise over the next two years, to £42 billion by 2019-20. 

"These protections, and the wider investment in the school system, mean that spending per pupil will be over 50 per cent higher in real terms in 2020  than it was in 2000, as set out by the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies.

“We recognise that schools are facing cost pressures, and we will continue to provide support to help them use their funding in the most cost effective ways, so that every pound of the investment we make in education has the greatest impact. This includes improving the way they buy goods and services, while our recently published School Buying Strategy is designed to help schools save over £1bn a year by 2019-20 on non-staff spend.”

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