There is no two ways about it: real, per-pupil funding is plummeting. Unless this is reversed, and fast, we could start to see recent improvements in attainment undoneby Valentine Mulholland / July 10, 2017 / Leave a comment
The extent of the problem became clear in April 2015, when schools were hit with a massive hike in employer’s national insurance and pension costs—5.5 per cent in total. They were heading for serious financial trouble.
The National Association of Head Teachers has 29,000 members, all in school leadership roles, and they started to tell us how worried they were about the future. In the autumn of 2015, we carried out a survey of over 1,200 of our members and the subsequent report painted a bleak picture, with 68 per cent of members reporting that they’d only been able to balance their budgets by making cuts or eating into reserves. By the time we surveyed them again last autumn, that number had risen to 71 per cent and 18 per cent were already in deficit, more than double the 2015 figure. As costs continued to rise—thanks to unfunded pay increases mandated by the government, cuts to local authority funding passed through to schools, the apprenticeship levy—schools had to take more difficult decisions.
Even as schools contemplated cuts and redundancies, 78 per cent of those surveyed said that they did not see how their schools could be viable by 2019/20. And then others started to add their voices to ours. In December 2016, the National Audit Office report, “Financial Sustainability of Schools,” confirmed that:
“Pay rises, the introduction of the national living wage, higher employer contributions to national insurance and the teachers’ pension scheme, non-pay inflation and the apprenticeship levy will mean additional costs for schools. The Department (for Education) estimates that, to counteract these pressures, schools will need to make economies or efficiency savings…rising to £3bn by 2019-20. This equates to an 8 per cent real-terms reduction in per-pupil funding between 2014-15 and 2019-20 due to cost pressures.”
“Parents can see how cuts are affecting the curriculum”
In February 2017, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) reported similar cuts, but by then, we had launched our School Cuts campaign with teacher and support staff unions the NUT, ATL, Unison, Unite and the GMB to counter government assertions that schools were seeing unprecedented levels of funding. These claims were disingenuous, ignoring the fact that we have unprecedented pupil numbers, and that actual funding per pupil has been falling dramatically in real terms.
And as the difficult cuts schools had to make started to become apparent to parents and pupils, parent groups started their own campaigns, including the very successful Fair Funding for All Schools. Parents can see how cuts are affecting the curriculum as classes are having to be cut, the requirements of pupils with additional needs are not being met as teaching assistants are being made redundant, and the learning environment is deteriorating as planned repairs are cancelled.
By the time the election was called, the whole country knew that school funding was in crisis and it became one of the key election issues. A recent Survation poll showed that it was the second biggest reason people changed their vote after the social care tax issue.
“The government’s original plans to plug the gaps in school funding through efficiency savings are flawed”
As a result, we saw all the main parties commit to more funding for schools. In the case of the Conservatives’ modest manifesto commitment to “increase the overall schools budget by £4bn by 2022,” analysis by the IFS shows that once you strip out inflation and take into account forecast growth in pupil numbers, this still represents a real terms cut per pupil of 2.8 per cent by 2021/22. Adding this to cuts already made and coming through the system, it’s a total real terms cut per pupil of around 7 per cent from 2015/16 to 2021/22. So they are going to have to dig much deeper: our estimate is that schools need around an extra £2bn a year to avoid having to make further cuts.
The government has over three months until the Autumn Budget to examine its figures and the wealth of independent analysis. Three months to understand the impact that cuts made so far have meant to schools. Three months to realise that their original plans to plug the gaps in school funding through efficiency savings are flawed. The Public Accounts Committee examined those in March and concluded that: “It is not clear how the Department will monitor both spending and performance so that it can intervene quickly where schools make efficiency savings in ways that risk causing damage. Without effective and timely monitoring of areas such as the breadth of the curriculum and class sizes, there is a real risk that the Department will not be able to prevent declining standards.”
We agree, and we hope the government will ensure that gains made in educational outcomes over the last few years are not lost.