The future is an uncertain place. Yet, decisions we make daily—great and small—are about that future. Any head teacher making budget proposals for the forthcoming year, for example, cannot know how events will unfold and what will be their implications for actual expenditure. In making those decisions, however, anxieties are tempered by experience, which tells us—and head teachers—that the coming year may not be too dissimilar from present circumstances, of which we are more certain. Or are we? What if the present is also an uncertain place, of which we not only know too little but where some circumstances may not be knowable? There are no guidelines from research and practice, for example, on the effects of spending different proportions of the school budget on teachers as against support staff. Will it ever be possible to advise a school that it is spending the right amount on books, as against other learning resources? Even if it is conceivable that research could answer these questions in the future, for the present we must recognise that much of our decision making occurs in conditions of uncertainty—about the nature of the present as well as the future. Recognition of uncertainty stands in marked contrast to the certainties implied in some definitions of management, such as that of Caines’ cited earlier: ‘setting objectives, allocating resources, delivering results, evaluating the impact’ (op. cit.) all have the ring of certitude.
We begin with these observations as uncertainty provides a key component for the analysis in this chapter, the purpose of which is to explore an answer to a question more easily asked than answered: how do we recognise a cost-effective school? In seeking an answer, our intentions are theoretical and practical. Theoretically, a conceptual framework defining the cost-effective school is a means by which we can attempt an assessment of whether schools are using their additional responsibilities over resources (costs) in ways that are educationally successful (effective); and such a framework provides a guide for undertaking an evaluation of the performance of our 18 schools. For practice, developing answers to a question on how we recognise cost-effective schools can provide insights