For the second time this year, a school leader has raised the real possibility of cutting the school week because of the funding crisis in education. It is frightening to think that we are facing such drastic cost-saving measures.
It is a clear sign that the time has come to stop pretending that education is being properly funded.
The Department for Education (DfE) persists in claiming that it has protected the schools budget. Only a very generous or naïve interpretation of the figures can justify this claim.
The truth is that the overall schools budget does not provide for funding per-pupil to increase with inflation (as was starkly confirmed by the National Audit Office in its recent analysis: DfE demands £3bn in savings as financial pressures mount, SecEd, January 2017: http://bit.ly/2lMdB0o).
And while the 2015 Spending Review set out an increasing schools budget from £39.6 billion in 2015/16 to £42.6 billion in 2019/20, the number of pupils is also set to rise during the same period by around 458,000. It means, the NAO says, that funding per-pupil will, on average, rise only from £5,447 in 2015/16 to £5,519 in 2019/20 – “a real-terms reduction once inflation is taken into account”.
The NAO confirmed that schools face having to find £3 billion in savings by 2020 to “counteract cumulative cost pressures such as pay rises and higher employer contributions to National Insurance and the Teachers’ Pension Scheme”.
On top of this comes the reforms to the National Funding Formula (NFF). DfE calculations show that if we were to apply these reforms right now (without any transitional arrangements) to 2016/17 funding, 48 out of 150 local authorities would see a reduction in schools block funding.
We also discovered in January, via research by the National Association of Head Teachers, that the number of schools running deficits has doubled in a year – from eight to 18 per cent. And 71 per cent of schools say they are only able to balance the budget by making cuts or eating into their reserves.
And another NAO report has this week warned of further trouble ahead. It reports that £6.7 billion is needed to return all school buildings to “satisfactory or better condition”.
There have been all manner of warnings about school funding during the past 18 months. But perhaps the most worrying came in January when five secondary heads in Cheshire revealed that they were considering moving to a four-day week in a bid to save money (the idea would be that children work from home one day a week, with teachers offering online support).
In a similarly concerning vein, the BBC reported this week that pupils at seven schools near Bristol might face shorter school days from September. Again, it is one option being considered by the Olympus Trust in South Gloucestershire to save funds. Other equally unpalatable options reportedly being discussed include cutting teaching and support staff jobs, larger class sizes and reducing the curriculum.
The government is to be commended for having the courage to take on the historically unfair school funding system in England. However, trying to reform school funding while cutting overall funding to schools is an impossible task that cannot possibly end well.
It says a lot that even the F40 campaign group (of the lowest funded local authorities), which has fought long and hard for funding reform, is now raising concerns about the current proposals and the number of schools that face funding cuts under the NFF.
Ultimately, school funding must be reformed and, in the long run, the current proposal looks better than what we have now. But with no increase to overall schools funding, it is set to do more harm than good for too many schools.
And what makes it even more galling is the continued propaganda from the government telling us that school budgets have been protected, when we all know very well that they have not.