While the government fiddles…

Written by: Dr Mary Bousted | Published:
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary, National Education Union

The government says that education unions have been ‘misleading’ the public when it comes to school funding – but nothing could be further from the truth…

Hundreds of teachers and school leaders gathered in Westminster last week to lobby the government on school funding.

Their presence provoked Nick Gibb, the schools minister, to accuse unions of being fundamentally “misleading”.

Nothing could be further from the truth, as school leaders, struggling to balance their books know to their cost. The government’s mantra – that more money is going into schools than ever before – is easily explained by another fact: there are more pupils in school than ever before. And, when rising cost pressures are taken into account, there is a £2.8 billion deficit since 2015 which the government expects schools to fill.

For the average primary school this means an annual cut in their budget of around £52,000. For the average secondary school, it’s £178,000. See the School Cuts website for more details.

Bizarrely, however, research by the National Education Union (NEU) has revealed that schools serving the most disadvantaged pupils are going to suffer the greatest funding cuts in comparison with schools with wealthier pupil intakes.

Cuts to primary schools in disadvantaged areas will be three times greater and to secondary schools in disadvantaged areas five times greater than to their counterparts in more advantaged areas.

And while the government fiddles, schools crumble. A teacher from a Yorkshire primary who was at the lobby showed me photos of the wet rot, dry rot, exposed brick, broken blinds and jammed windows which are his daily working environment in a school which is crumbling before his eyes.

The National Audit Office (NAO) confirms, on a national scale, this local example. The NAO’s report earlier this year on schools’ capital funding found that £6.7 billion is needed to bring every school building into a satisfactory or better than satisfactory condition (NAO, 2017).

And, as 60 per cent of schools were built more than 40 years ago, these costs are likely to double between 2015/16 and 2020/21.

The problem of inadequate funding is not confined to schools. Early years provision and further education are being denied the cash they need to function properly. FE funding (FE and sixth form colleges) has been particularly badly hit – suffering a 16.1 per cent cut in real-terms between 2010/11 and 2016/17 (Foster, 2017).

Given that the situation is so serious for schools and colleges, and faced with the imperative for our education system to perform well in a post-Brexit world, it is hard to understand why education ministers are continuing to waste money on initiatives which are, at best, deeply questionable.

Why, for instance, is Theresa May pledging to build 100 more free schools every year of this Parliament? Can she be ignorant of the high-profile failures of so many free schools – failures of educational standards, as well as financial mismanagement and, in the worst cases, fraud?

Can she be ignorant of the NAO’s finding that the Department for Education (DfE) has paid, on average, 19 per cent above the land cost value for free school sites, and in 20 cases, 60 per cent more? (NAO, 2017)

And how is it that stories of financial impropriety, particularly in cases of multi-academy trust (MAT) directors using school funds to pay their own companies money for “services” provided to the schools in their MAT, are being uncovered with such regularity, and with seemingly little or no accountability or redress?

The most serious consequence of inadequate school funding will be greater numbers of teachers leaving the profession. Already the figures are alarming – less than half (48 per cent) of England’s secondary teachers have more than 10 years’ experience in the classroom, with NQTs quickly being burnt out by the stress of punishing workloads driven by high-stakes accountability (Sellen, 2016).

As funding pressures rise and class sizes increase, and as teachers struggle with inadequate resources and fewer teaching assistants, expect to see more teachers voting with their feet and walking away from the classroom.

No education system can exceed the quality of its teachers. The government’s proposed cuts to school funding will make the problem of recruiting and retaining teachers even worse.

  • Dr Mary Bousted is joint general secretary of the National Education Union.

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