School funding: The anger grows...

Written by: Chris Parr | Published:
Funding pledge: Damian Hinds address ASCL’s conference in Birmingham last month (IMAGE: RDA PHOTOGRAPHY)

The education secretary says he has ‘heard the message’ on funding. But with new figures claiming real-terms cuts of £270 per-pupil, will he take action? Chris Parr reports

When education secretary Damian Hinds told the Association of School and College Leaders’ (ASCL) annual conference last month that he had “heard the message on funding loud and clear”, many in the room might have had a sense of déjà vu.

A year earlier, at the union’s 2018 gathering, Mr Hinds had told delegates that “funding is tight, I don’t deny that at all”.

It was a similar message – and in the 12 months between those two speeches, it is an issue that has gathered momentum in such a way that, as Mr Hinds entered the conference hall to make this year’s address, he was greeted outside by a chorus of “no ifs, no buts, no education cuts” from assembled protesters – most of them parents.

It is not the first time that the public has targeted the Department for Education (DfE) with anger over school funding. Last month, MPs debated the issue in Parliament after a government e-petition surpassed the 100,000 signatures required to spark a Westminster debate (still live, it now has 112,000 names and counting).

The debate provided a platform for politicians to air their grievances – and there was little holding back.

“The word crisis is overused in this place, for certain, but it feels very much as though the situation with school resources is a crisis,” said former Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron.

“The government is hopelessly out of touch regarding the crisis in our schools, and parents, teachers and pupils know better than to be fooled by paltry funding for ‘little extras’,” added Mohammad Yasin, Labour MP for Bedford – referencing chancellor Philip Hammond’s much-ridiculed injection of £400 million in school capital funding last November.

The amount – which equates to roughly £50,000 per secondary school – has been viewed as an insult at a time when many schools are facing huge real-terms cuts.

And yet more evidence continues to emerge of the situation facing schools. Updated analysis of school spending by the union-led School Cuts campaign says that because of rising costs and increasing pupil numbers England’s schools have seen a shortfall in funding to the tune of £5.4 billion since 2015/16.

Its figures, which cover the Schools Block allocations, Pupil Premium and 16 to 19 allocations, show that secondary schools have lost an average of £273,240 a year between 2015/16 and 2018/19 – £270 less per-pupil, per-year in real-terms.

Also speaking in the e-petition debate last month was Labour MP for Edgbaston Pareet Kaur Gill. She asked what the DfE made of “the 10 schools … in Birmingham that now close at lunchtime on Fridays because they cannot afford to stay open for longer”.

This same question was put to Mr Hinds after his address at ASCL. Speaking to SecEd, he said: “I do recognise the pressures that there are on the school system.

“Some schools do open different hours on a Friday – that is not totally new. Clearly, all children need to be able to get both the quality and quantity of teaching time they are entitled to and they need, (but) within that schools do have some flexibility ... on the pattern of the week.”

When pressed on whether this meant he was comfortable with the idea of schools closing early, he said that any atypical opening hours should only be implemented in consultation with parents.

The well-rehearsed funding problems have not appeared overnight. Heads and teachers have been warning for years, with increasing fervour, that budgets are tightening in an unsustainable manner.

While official figures show that core funding for schools and high needs will rise from almost £41 billion in 2017/18 to £43.5 billion in 2019/20, including the extra £1.3 billion for schools and high needs announced by ministers in 2017, both pupil numbers and school costs are rising quickly.

There are now 8,74 million pupils across all types of school in England (up 66,000 – or 0.8 per cent – in the last year, January 2017 to 2018), while the School Cuts analysis shows that cost pressures have increased by 7.4 per cent between 2015/16 and 2018/19, including inflation, pay awards, the Apprenticeship Levy, and pension and National Insurance contributions

ASCL said last year that £2 billion a year was needed by 2020 to address the funding situation and that £2.8 billion had been lost from school budgets in real-terms since 2015. General secretary Geoff Barton said this week that some schools were facing insolvency.

He explained: “Schools across the country have had to make severe cuts and there are more on the way as reserves are drained and deficits increase. Schools are in the invidious position of having to decide on the least-worst option of where to make cuts or they will become insolvent.”

Despite this, the rhetoric from the DfE has often sounded a tone of denial – claiming at one point that investment in education was the third highest globally (infamously failing to mention that this claim included university tuition fee loans and private school fees). The UK Statistics Authority was quick to rebuke the DfE over this piece of spin.

Back at ASCL’s conference, Mr Hinds was asked by journalists how such stresses could be felt by schools if funding was as healthy as ministers claim. He replied: “Both of those things are true simultaneously – it is true that there is more money in the school system than there has been in the past, it is also true if you compare internationally ... we are relatively high spenders on state primary and secondary education.

“But at the same time there are big pressures in some parts of the system as well, and we need to deal with those pressures.”

This could be viewed as something of a change in rhetoric for Mr Hinds. With the public spending review scheduled to take place before the summer, the pressure will be on him to argue the case for an education settlement that relieves the financial stress on school leaders.

In his speech to ASCL, Mr Hinds said: “I have heard the message on funding loud and clear. I understand that there are real concerns, that finances are challenging for schools and that many of you have had to make, and are having to make, very hard choices. I will take the opportunity (of the spending review) to make the strongest possible case for education.”SecEd

  • Chris Parr is a freelance journalist.

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