The Cost of Oak

Savage cuts to school resource budgets seems to have become the current ‘Normal Operating Procedure’ for many headteachers as they find themselves in the invidious position of trying to balance an ongoing onslaught of budgetary pressures.  

Given the self-chosen catchphrase of ‘by teachers, for teachers’ of Oak National Academy we might therefore hope that leaders of the new £45m Government quango would watch every penny spent with the same scrutiny as that of our cost-conscious heads. 

This unfortunately does not seem to the case, as BESA’s analysis of the expenditure of Oak’s expenditure highlights.

Despite heavy Government promotion of Oak and 94% awareness among teachers of Oak (Oak’s own figures) the new curriculum body spent £417k on advertising and marketing with £138k spent on Google, Facebook and other social media ad space. As Oak moves into its second year of operation, we expect Oak’s marketing costs to increase even further, as verified by Oak’s board minutes from October 2023 

Should Oak be allowed to market to schools? Is expenditure on adverts a wise use of public money?   

One of the key reasons the Department for Education cites for acquiring Oak was that it was already a recognisable brand. Yet, during a year when Oak had spent an amount on advertising unmatched by even some of its largest competitors, the total number of teachers using Oak declined by 14% with just 1 in 4 teachers using the platform on at least one occasion during in the last 12 months. Based off Oak’s total marketing expenditure this equates to £3.56 spent on marketing for every teacher using the platform on at least one occasion during the period covered.  

These costs are not just isolated to the taxpayer. Digital marketing adverts are sold at auctions, where the price per advert has a large influence over whether one advertisers’ advert is seen over another. By spending significant amounts of money on digital marketing, Oak is not only inflating the costs of established providers, but also choking the ability for new companies to enter it. Smaller digital publishers often rely heavily on advertising as they are not yet well known enough to rely on organic traffic to their website, and Oak’s aggressive use of this form of advertising is squeezing out competition. Some BESA members have reported that the cost for advertising space has triple since Oak launched its new curriculum products this year. 

Oak seems far removed from the teachers it purports to serve in other areas of expenditure too. Whilst the DfE recommends that schools buy remanufactured or refurbished devices over brand-new ones to ensure value for money, Oak spared no expense buying top-end tech for their own staff including a MacBook Pro and other Apple products as well as spending £8,351.99 on the celebrity online learning portal ‘Masterclass’. 

These purchases appear out of touch with the reality and funding challenges facing school leaders and classroom teachers on the front line. 

One of the fears BESA raised at the time of Oak’s establishment was that direct schools funding risked being side-lined and consumed by an expensive and inefficient quango resulting in reduced autonomy for school leaders. School leaders who no doubt would have loved to have been able to spend £13,575 for an ‘organisational offsite’ for their own staff to enjoy the ‘luxurious’ and ‘stunning features’ of the Clayton Hotel Manchester, especially if it happened to coincide with peak Christmas party period, as Oak’s own did at the venue during December 2022.  

BESA’s own research, conducted in November 2023, showed that the majority of teachers were expected to pay their own way at their school’s Christmas parties, with just one in ten schools indicating that the school was going to fully fund the party. The Government records also show that Oak paid a £801.50 deposit for an ‘evening meal offsite’ at Manchester’s Banyan Corn Exchange in December 2023, and spent £507 on a hire car for three people to attend an offsite meeting in September 2022, a world away from many teachers’ lived experience of battered and bumpy school buses! 

This article may seem at points trivial, but the implications are not.  Government and Oak supporters might argue that Oak was handed £45m of taxpayer’s money, and if they can keep in budget, what’s the issue?   

The issue is fairness.  Fairness to schools, whose money Oak is fundamentally spending.  Fairness to businesses, who work decades to build their companies and now find themselves unable compete because the market’s level playing field has been turned over by the fast-growing roots of Oak.  And finally, fairness to the taxpayer. Ultimately, we all foot the bill for Oak.   

At a moment in time when school budgets are stretched thinner than ever a new Government quango is spending eye-watering amounts on advertising, staff away days, hotels and car rentals. Our current Government shows no sign of curbing this excess. However, following the forthcoming general election, it is my hope that a new Government of whatever political make-up, will apply a new broom to sweep away wasteful public expenditure and reinvest the cost-savings direct to schools where the funding rightly belongs.  

You can read the full analysis here