School funding: You couldn't make it up...

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Pete Henshaw, editor, SecEd

As the government continues to parrot its line that school funding is ‘at record levels’, frustration and anger is growing. What hope for an honest debate ahead of June 8, asks Pete Henshaw

It is heartening to see that education funding looks like it will become a key battleground in the June 8 General Election.

There is palpable frustration and anger within schools at the government’s robotic denials on school funding.
At any sign of a challenge on the issue, education ministers and even the prime minister refuse to engage and instead simply parrot the line that “spending is at record levels”.

Of course, by using such a response they are deliberately ignoring the spending and cost pressures on schools, which – as we all know very well – will lead to a £3 billion real-terms fall in school funding by 2019/20.
But the DfE refuses to tackle the issue, continuing to insist that it has “protected school funding”.

Nothing is said of increased pension contributions, increased National Insurance contributions, hugely rising pupil numbers, huge pressure on a crumbling schools estate, huge pressure on teacher recruitment (the list goes on).

The National Audit Office has been among those to pull ministers up on this. It stated clearly in its recent report that the overall schools budget does not provide for funding per-pupil to increase with inflation. The same report spelt out the eight per cent drop facing school budgets by 2019/20. More recent ATL/NUT analysis has suggested schools face a real-terms cut in per-pupil funding of £554 in secondaries and £403 in primaries by 2020 (see page 10: An education manifesto).

The EPI, meanwhile, has suggested we will see real-terms cuts of between six and 11 per cent, including 880 schools that face losses of more than 10 per cent by 2019/20.

And yet ministers are still, shamefully, reluctant to address this in any discussion.

The sad and maddening aspect to all of this is that ministers are taking us all for fools. They know full well that school funding is falling dramatically in real-terms, but they are hoping that their “record levels” sound-bite will sink into public consciousness ahead of June 8.

Because, for them, winning the election is much more important that actually addressing a real crisis facing the education system.

The anger from within the profession must have reached its zenith earlier this month when members of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), at their annual conference, attacked the government for their continuing denials on real-term funding cuts – accusing them, appropriately, of “sounding like a recorded message”.

And lo and behold, in response to these attacks, guess what the government told us: That education funding would rise to £41 billion in the next year – and had never been higher!

You couldn’t make it up.

I make no apology for repeating the funding figures above even though they are figures most of you will be familiar with. However, I did come across a new take on the funding situation this week. Treasury data, as highlighted by the NAHT, shows that money going into schools has fallen from 5.9 per cent of the nation’s wealth in 2010 and is set to hit four per cent in 2020 – this would be the lowest level in 60 years.

So as the General Election campaign hots up, I welcome the commitments from both Labour and the Liberal Democrats on school funding. I hope this will mean a serious and open debate is possible on school funding, free from misleading and disingenuous statements.

Labour has pledged to invest £20 billion in England’s schools by 2022. This includes a protection of real-terms schools funding and a cut in class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds. This will be funded mainly by raising corporation tax. The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, have pledged a £7 billion investment to protect funding per-pupil – this, they say, will reverse cuts to front-line budgets, protect pupil funding in real-terms, and ensure no school loses out from the National Funding Formula.

And what was the Conservative response to these pledges? You guessed it: “Spending is at record levels.”

Further information

For SecEd’s coverage of the funding crisis and the National Funding Formula, visit http://bit.ly/2pcCkgh


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