Budgeting the curriculum

How will funding reforms affect your curriculum planning? Julia Harnden and Suzanne O’Farrell from the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) explain how to keep the curriculum at the heart of budget planning

There are changes in the way education funding is distributed to schools that are impossible to ignore. The national funding formula (NFF) has been introduced in the budget year 2018/19, so although the impact has been limited so far, most schools will have experienced some significant changes during this period.

During the implementation stage, local authorities do retain some flexibilities, and some but not all have moved to closely mirror the NFF. At a local level, decisions should be made that best meet the needs of all the children and young people in an area. We know that local formula flexibility will continue until at least 2020/21, but the big question is how well the education sector will be funded in the next comprehensive spending review (CSR), which we’re expecting to take place at some point in 2019.

The outcome of the CSR will determine how much money the Department for Education (DfE) is awarded by HM Treasury. At the moment we don’t believe there is sufficient funding to meet the needs of all pupils. So ASCL, along with many other sector organisations, is working with the DfE to build evidence to support the case for more money in education.

Making best use of the money

Your curriculum will always be at the heart of the school’s strategic financial plan. With so many schools having to find increasingly innovative ways of stretching their budgets to meet the needs of their pupils it can be helpful to take a step back and focus on a few key questions that will inform your strategy discussions and build financial resilience:

  • What does the curriculum that we must deliver look like?
  • What does the curriculum that we want to deliver look like?
  • What does the curriculum that we can afford look like?

The answers to these three questions will be determined by the number of pupils in your school and their characteristics, so being able to make confident and realistic pupil number projections, as well as considering the needs of the local community, are key elements in successful financial planning.

Constructive strategic planning discussions will generate multiple scenarios, so it makes sense to test each one against a simple set of requirements. For each option, consider how well it would deliver:

  • An affordable and sustainable curriculum – in other words, how many teachers would you need?
  • Sufficient and necessary whole school staff and resources – this would include support staff, learning support, administrative and finance staff, cleaning and catering, as well as IT hardware and software, and curriculum resources such as text books and schemes of work.
  • Safe and well-maintained buildings.

What shape is your curriculum?

Your curriculum is the learning you want to put before your pupils and the story you want to tell everyone about your school. It represents the totality of a pupil’s daily experience – lessons, events and routines beyond and outside the typical school day. The school curriculum is different to the national curriculum and there is no one model for an outstanding curriculum because a school’s context matters.

Principled curriculum leadership means designing and having pride and confidence in a curriculum designed to meet pupils’ needs and aspirations rather than performance measures. It also means ensuring the curriculum is not narrow for any key stage group of pupils and that, where possible, the quality of curriculum delivery is the same

for all groups of pupils. Most importantly, it is about a vision for the curriculum that goes beyond the need for accountability; being able to recognise that the curriculum is not synonymous with qualifications or test syllabi.


A school’s senior leaders should ask themselves: ‘What – and who – is our curriculum for? What is distinctive about our curriculum for our context? How is our curriculum helping to deliver social justice? And where in my curriculum are our principles exemplified?’.

Designing a curriculum

When designing a curriculum there are a number of key factors to consider: How can I best support disadvantaged pupils? How can I ensure all pupils have the best chance to be successful in their lives? And how do I ensure my school performs at its best? However, all these points must be viewed through the lens of realistic budgetary constraints, recruitment and retention of teachers and the latest accountability measures.

The curriculum is the vehicle through which you will provide the personal, social and academic outcomes and educational experiences that you want for your pupils. All school leaders should aim to create a climate that values curriculum design and curriculum thinking so that their teachers are encouraged to break down knowledge and ensure it is carefully sequenced.

Ofsted’s current focus on curriculum encourages schools to think deeply about curriculum design – from the material that is introduced, to the frequency and context in which it is revisited, learned and eventually mastered, and how links are made across the entirety of the curriculum.

When evaluating the impact of the curriculum, schools can look at various indicators – for example, outcomes from starting points for different groups, how it is helping pupils grow in learning and understanding, personal development and welfare, attendance, behavioural indicators, destinations, staff recruitment and retention, parental engagement, financial viability, choice and breadth of subjects, or experiences and pupil motivation.

Effective resource management

Everything that we have mentioned so far can be summarised as effective resource management and the successful performance of your school or trust depends on it. High standards and sustainable growth rely on sound financial management so that more of the budget is invested in the classroom.

Regular budget scrutiny is an essential feature of resource management, with variances against planned receipts or expenditure investigated and appropriate action taken to resolve. At a strategic level the monitoring process should always include the following steps:

  • Review – can you demonstrate that the budget has been spent for the purposes it was intended?
  • Investigate – are you satisfied that appropriate standards of conduct have been applied to all spending decisions?
  • Resolve – has the school managed its resources efficiently and achieved value for money?

Having the right tools to do the job is very important. Good budget planning and monitoring software supports effective resource management in all types and size of school. Across an academy trust, using the same tools in each school enables consistency and streamlines the planning, monitoring and reporting process.

This may require substantial investment so be sure to follow good practice and consider several suppliers. Don’t think just about cost but also about how well the product meets your needs, both now and in the future, and find out what schools already using a product say about it. But be mindful about investing in an all-singing, all-dancing product that includes functionality that you will never use or need!

The key drivers for managing financial resources are those factors that will influence the affordability of the curriculum:

  • The amount of revenue income that you receive per pupil
  • The average cost of employing a teacher at your school
  • How much you can afford to spend on teachers
  • The amount of time your teachers spend teaching.

Building financial resilience

Curriculum-led planning is an approach to strategic financial planning that builds on the key drivers for effective resource management. You may have heard this referred to as integrated curriculum financial planning (ICFP). ICFP brings together curriculum and budget planning as a closely linked process and uses a common language to develop understanding across the leadership team and the trust board or governing body. This is certainly not a new idea. ASCL and others have been advocating the value of strengthening the link between curriculum and financial planning for many years!

Practically speaking, ICFP is based on the relationship between a group of key metrics. These might include the cost of employing a teacher, the amount of time teachers spend teaching, how much of the budget is available to spend on teachers, the average size of a teaching group and the pupil-teacher ratio. 

Consideration of the interaction between these metrics and exploring where there might be flexibility will directly inform the number of teachers the school can afford to employ and therefore the number of teaching sessions the school has available to deliver the curriculum.

All of the questions, metrics and considerations already mentioned are relevant to all phases of education. The relationship between the metrics and the range of values that a school or trust might choose to work within will be different in a primary and secondary setting; they will also be different in schools with high and low levels of deprivation.

Done well, ICFP should deliver a curriculum that meets the needs of all groups of pupils, takes account of local context, and provides a sustainable foundation for growth.

Case study: community support

‘We have a very creative curriculum with a distinct learning journey based on visiting different “lands”. We are also a Forest School and our rich, diverse curriculum is served via a variety of trips, enrichment opportunities and visitors to the school.

However, recently we have had to work much harder to find the money to maintain what we do, and in 2017-2018 we endeavoured to close the gap on a £20,000 deficit. Measures included a reduction in leadership time and I took on the role of SENDCo to reduce costs. We also requested donations from parents.

The support of our local community is invaluable. Our school has a dedicated Community Partnership Group, which exchanges knowledge and skills to enrich learning and simultaneously benefit the community. Exploring new income streams – especially grant opportunities – has also become a central focus for the group.

We also have a supportive, effective Resources Governing Body Committee, and our School Business Manager is very good at strategically managing the budget. And we have a dedicated Fundraising Governor and Grants Team committed to pursuing grants and networking opportunities. Finally, we are lucky to have an extremely proactive and passionate PTA, which last year raised £17,000!’

Sarah Palmer, Head, Camelsdale Primary School, Haslemere, Surrey (219 pupils)

Case study: pooling resources

‘Budget cuts have meant streamlining bought-in services, reviewing all existing contracts and going out to tender wherever possible to ensure improved quality and value for money. We’re also carrying out only essential buildings and repair works. We are working with governors to build a five-year business plan to address future staffing needs and capital projects.

 At Amersham School each child has a personalised curriculum depending on their academic capability, and all subjects are taught through a combination of communication, interpersonal skills, research skills, creativity, learning to learn skills and how to be an effective self manager. This better enables students to develop their self confidence, as well as preparing them for the world of work. 

With budget cuts, subjects that demand high levels of resources, such as art, design technology and food technology, have had to be scaled back in the Key Stage 3 curriculum. Class sizes have increased in English in Key Stage 3 and also in Science.

 Departments have had to be more creative with their budgets, identifying effective resources that offer value for money, pooling equipment and tools and reviewing reprographic needs, as well as requesting parental contributions.’

Bernie Shea, Business Manager, and Sharon Jarrett, Head, Amersham School, Amersham, Buckinghamshire (860 pupils)

About our experts

Julia Harnden (@julia_harnden) is ASCL’s Funding Specialist and works with schools, supporting them in developing sustainable strategic financial plans and building financial resilience. She represents ASCL in the campaign for sufficient, sustainable and equitable funding for education and belongs to a number of DfE strategy groups. Julia worked for HSBC’s corporate banking division before moving to the education sector.

 Suzanne O’Farrell (@OfarrellSuzanne) is ASCL’s Curriculum, Assessment and Qualifications Specialist. She leads for the organisation on all aspects of curriculum and assessment in the secondary phase and supports school leaders in curriculum and assessment planning. Before joining ASCL, Suzanne spent 27 years in secondary education and was Headteacher of a large secondary school in Staffordshire.