The Education Secretary Damian has, to his credit, displayed a growing acceptance of the difficulties faced by schools—and could be crucial to a pivot in Whitehallby Natalie Perera / March 21, 2019 / Leave a comment
School funding is the issue that refuses to go away. At a time when other domestic grievances are struggling to receive a fair hearing, the concerted call for action on funding from teachers and leaders seems to grow louder by the day.
In an unprecedented march at the beginning of the school year, hundreds of headteachers descended on Downing Street to demand an improved funding settlement, while the ‘WorthLess?’ campaign continues to gain national attention—most recently by highlighting instances of schools struggling to afford basic classroom equipment. Teaching unions claim that schools have had to reduce the number or hours of teaching staff due to funding shortages.
Despite the growing consternation from the sector and some parents, the government has confidently maintained that schools have seen record levels offunding, with spending set to rise from almost £41bn in 2017-18, to £43.5bn by 2019-20.
The government’s claims on spending levels are by no means false—but they do fail to show the whole picture. Rising inflation and pupil numbers, taken together with cuts to school sixth forms and local authority education services, mean that real-terms, per pupil funding for schools has actually declined by 8 per cent since 2009-2010.
That’s not all. With local authority budgets facing significant cuts, schools say they often have to reach well beyond their traditional remit, picking up the tab for many vital services. Spending on children’s services will have been cut by around 20 per cent per child by the end of 2019-20, meaning that schools are often assuming responsibility for early intervention and other services by default.
Recent EPI research supports claims of growing pressures on school budgets. Looking at balances—a key indicator of the financial health of schools—we found that almost one in three local authority secondary schools (30 per cent) in England were in deficit, a figure which has almost quadrupled since 2014. These worrying trends show that many schools’ vital signs are not promising.
Education Secretary Damian Hinds has, to his credit, displayed a growing acceptance of the difficulties faced by schools. With the Spending Review now set to commence before this summer’s parliamentary recess, Hinds has sought to make it very clear that he would be fighting his corner by pledging to “make the strongest possible case” to the Treasury.
Before then, and regardless of any potential future budget windfalls for schools, the DfE is likely to stick to what has become their mantra for responding to the issue of financial pressures: helping schools to locate efficiencies.
Certainly, there is a strong feeling within the DfE that schools can do more with their money. Ministers have, for instance, increasingly encouraged schools to consider changing their approach to areas such as staffing deployment to help ease pressures.
Instructing schools to ‘find efficiencies’ in the current climate has provoked anger from many—so are ministers justified in making such overtures? It’s certainly true that there may be some potential for savings through staffing deployment, and while our latest funding report shows that many schools are in the red, it also highlights how some are carrying budget surpluses.
The total level of surplus balances in local authority schools stands at £1.8 billion, which in theory could easily eliminate school deficits—though in practice there are multiple policy hurdles in the way.
The Chancellor, at the weekend, already suggested that “skewed distribution” may be the reason behind school funding pressures—in other words, that a smarter reallocation of money from the existing pot, rather than an increase in overall core funding, is likely to ease the situation.
These words will alarm campaigners and will no doubt spur on efforts over the next few months. To add to this, there are now several dozen Conservative MPs who have become increasingly vocal about funding.
All in all, though, it may be Hinds himself who proves pivotal in the ensuing Whitehall battles this year. Many schools have voiced their discontent with the Secretary of State’s approach to funding before—but on this occasion, they would be better advised to back him all the way.