The 3 Rs of improving educational outcomes in times of austerity

piggy-banks-1024Louise Robinson, Education Partner, Arcadis, writes…

School leaders are used to the ebb and flow of ever-evolving education policy, and are experienced in adapting their approaches accordingly. However even for this most adaptable of professions, the last 12 months has been striking in the level of change proposed (and in some cases, subsequently retracted). Combined with financial pressures on an unprecedented scale, the environment within which educational outcomes must be improved and sustained is challenging, to say the least. Optimising the impact of available funding is essential. In this article, I set out our 3 Rs on how to do so.

Realise benefits of scale

The financial sustainability of small, single institutions is increasingly difficult. Increasing the size of your operating model, in terms of starting your own multi-academy trust (MAT), joining an existing one or establishing a hard federation or umbrella trust can improve the financial outlook.

However, reaching for growth has educational benefits far beyond simple financial economies of scale. There is now significant evidence that working in collaboration improves educational outcomes as well as potentially improving efficiency and reducing costs. Such models provide the scale and capacity to offer system-wide opportunities such as:

  • enhanced opportunities for professional development, career progression and succession planning
  • teacher training capability, including the ability and capacity to take on system leadership roles such as initial teacher training
  • strong governance and robust accountability for school improvement
    rounding off where we started this chapter, financial efficiency and long- term sustainability.

The level of savings will depend on the size and type of MAT, federation or trust. But across core services such as finance, HR, payroll, audit, energy and asset management planning, you could reasonably anticipate savings of 3-8% for each individual school.

Reset the status quo

Even with the right structure in place, financial pressures remain. We have seen from the responses to this report that some schools and academies have already been forced to make redundancies, but remain concerned they will find themselves in the same situation again in the near future. The continued use of such strategies is having a negative impact on outcomes – so we must think differently. Consider the entire operation of your school or academy and be brave in confronting previously controversial issues. Such considerations may include:

Teaching and learning

  • Can you implement larger teaching groups with enhanced use of technology? Can lessons be learned from other sectors, such as higher education?
  • Review your curriculum offer: is there an opportunity to think holistically about the provision of secondary subjects across a MAT with different academies specialising in different subjects and using technology to deliver across the group?
  • Review your curriculum modelling and timetable. Is there any additional capacity you could use? How much non-contact time do teachers currently have? What is the teaching commitment of the SLT? Could you be leaner?
  • How do you currently provide pastoral support? Is it effective? Is it cost-efficient?


  • Ensure that the school, academy or MAT considers its future requirements and has a premises development plan that delivers a strategy aligned to your education vision, aspirations, needs and wider local objectives.
  • Don’t try to economise on or postpone buildings maintenance – it may be tempting to put off a large fee, but it’s a false economy and will often end up costing more in the long term.
  • Ensure that you fully understand the costs and efficiencies of any new buildings you are taking on, perhaps as a result of taking more schools into a MAT. Ask questions, request information, gather data, challenge costs.

Support/central services

  • Invest to save: ensure that your finance director or school business manager has the time to think strategically, complete funding applications, develop revenue streams, etc. Invest in a qualified accountant as your MAT grows.
  • Maximise the effective use of technology. Use a curriculum planning tool that informs budget planning, and ensure the integration of other systems such as HR, finance and payroll.
  • Review the structure, working patterns and contracts of operational support staff. Consider flexibility within contracts of employment and, for those that have them, use your academy freedoms.
  • Use students, work experience placements, apprentices to deliver certain aspects of your central services or revenue streams such as leisure facilities, lettings, fundraising and newsletter production. Or consider integrating specific revenue-generating projects into the curriculum.

Renegotiate and re-tender to save money (and add value)

In most cases local authorities are no longer the providers of choice, as they simply don’t have the critical mass to be able to offer either economies of scale or quality assurance of provision. In these circumstances, support services can seem like a costly and bewildering expense and your buildings can all too often feel like a huge burden. Here is our advice on how to maximise the bang for your buck:

  • Benchmark with other similar schools and academies. How do your budget breakdowns compare? Are you achieving similar outcomes? Try to visit schools and academies that are performing well with regard to both student outcomes and financial efficiencies.
  • Maximise your buying power by procuring some services across your entire MAT or group of schools; or partner with other schools and organisations to both block-purchase and jointly fundraise.
  • How services are procured will affect the level of savings achieved, for example bigger savings can typically be made by procuring multiple services through one provider. This could drive 3-5% additional savings, as suppliers can apply a more generous discount structure. Also, the longer the service level agreement is guaranteed to run for, the better discounts suppliers will give. These factors need to be balanced with flexibility and performance management issues.
  • Review service contracts and question the value for money of everything. And continuously revisit these; set up regular review cycles and monitoring points or ask members of your finance committee to take responsibility for constantly reviewing and benchmarking particular elements.

Reduced funding is now a reality, and the time has come to think differently about all aspects of school operation, including the delivery of teaching and learning and operational structures. Think small: prioritise effectively and be forensic in your analysis of costs. But at the same time don’t forget to think big, and reach for growth.

About Arcadis
Arcadis is the leading global Design & Consultancy firm for natural and built assets. Applying their deep market sector insights and collective design, consultancy, engineering, project and management services they work in partnership with their clients to deliver exceptional and sustainable outcomes throughout the lifecycle of their natural and built assets. They are 28,000 people active in over 70 countries that generate more than €3 billion in revenues. They support UN-Habitat with knowledge and expertise to improve the quality of life in rapidly growing cities around the world.

triumph-in-adversity-cover-with-drop-shadow-300This piece is taken from Triumph in adversity – an SSAT and Arcadis publication that explores the many different ways in which schools are overcoming financial constraints. You can download the full publication here [PDF].

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