School leaders are facing the biggest challenge of their professional lives: they’re simultaneously trying to balance the books amid a national funding crisis and provide the resources required to bolster teaching and learning and improve outcomes for learners.
According to the National Audit Office schools face an 8 per cent real-terms cut worth £3 billion by 2020.
More than half of schools already lack enough income to cover their expenditure. In 2015/16, for example, 53% of multi-academy trusts spent more than their income compared with just 25% the previous year.
Governors in some schools have threatened – for the very first time – to go on strike rather than agree underfunded budgets. In West Sussex, for example, governors have written to their local MPs warning that they will refuse to sign off budgets or carry out supervisory work.
Some head teachers are considering cutting school hours by, for example, running a four-day week whereby children work at home on the fifth day in order to save on heating, lighting, cleaning and transport costs.
And an increasing number of schools have begun asking parents for cash to help plug the yawning chasm in their finances. According to a recent survey by PTA UK (a charity which represents a network of parent associations in schools), for example, more than a third of parents say have been asked to donate money to their child’s school because of an inadequacy of school funding.
Unless the government can return the £384 million it had earmarked for its academy conversion plan but swiftly reclaimed when the policy was ditched, or reinvest in education some of the £2.8 billion it will raise through the apprenticeship levy (currently, it only plans to re-invest £640 million in apprentice provision), or look again at the fair funding formula, then the current financial crisis will only deepen over time.
Indeed, matters threaten to get worse pretty quickly thanks to a sharp rise in schools’ business rates which could push some budgets beyond breaking point. Business rates, charged on properties in England, are due to change in April for the first time in seven years. Some calculations suggest that changes to the rateable value of schools mean many will face 40% bill increases.
As such, schools will have to decide which subjects they should stop teaching, which teachers they should make redundant, which classes to merge, and which services – careers advice, the school library, mental health counselling, and so on – they should ditch.
At times like these, the first casualty to fall is often staff development because – when faced with tough choices – training budgets start to look like a luxury.
Indeed, the axe has already begun to fall…
Research by the Teacher Development Trust suggests that as many as 20,000 teachers in England are currently working without a training budget.
And what is the government response? Ministers insist, mantra-like, that school investment is at a record £40bn.
But to say that school investment is at a record level is to make a mockery of the figures.
Let’s imagine we want to offer Sunday lunch to a group of family or friends. To keep it simple, let’s say we have ten pounds to feed ten people. The next week, having made such a success of the first meal, we have a similar amount of money available to us – perhaps even a little more, say £15 – but now we have more people to feed.
So £15 has to feed twenty people whereas £10 fed ten people the previous week. We start with £1 per person but now we’re down to 75p per person.
If the government was funding this meal, each time we claimed we were struggling to buy food, they’d insist that ‘We have funded this meal at a record level of £15, that’s 50% more money than the previous Labour government invested’ and many people would buy that argument and insist that Sunday lunches have never been so well funded. But it’s a nonsense because the money has to go so much further than it did before.
And it’s just the same in our schools. Yes, the headline figure is higher than it has ever been but that belies the fact that there are many more pupils than ever before and that the increase in funding has not kept pace with the increase in pupil numbers.
And then there’s the fact that the costs of running a school have increased, too…
Returning to the Sunday lunch analogy, imagine we have £15 to feed twenty people whereas we used to have £10 to feed ten. Not only has per-person funding been cut from £1 to 75p but now the price of food has gone up so whereas £1 used to buy us ten potatoes, it now only buys 5 potatoes. And the cost of gas has gone up, too, so cooking the food is more expensive as well.
The cost of running of a school has increased in myriad ways. To name but a few: there have been increases to employer contributions to National Insurance, increases to employer contributions to pensions, and increases in the levels of nationally agreed pay awards. And, like the cost of cooking our meal, the cost of heating and lighting a school has increased too. Soon, schools will also have to find the money to pay the new apprenticeship levy and increases in business rates.
So the oft-repeated government line that they are funding schools at record levels is wearing a little thin, to be honest.
And today’s announcement that the chancellor is to invest £320m in a new wave of free schools and grammar schools adds insult to injury. State schools need urgent investment; this is not the time to fund politician’s pet projects.
Since I first wrote this piece, school funding has been in the news almost every day. Pressure on the government is heating up as more and more schools publicise their funding woes and more parents express their dissatisfaction with cuts being made at their child’s school.
However, a majority of the coverage has focused on the proposed new National Funding Formula as being the source of the problems. A delegation of backbench Tory MPs – including former Chancellor George Osborne – has been to see the Education Secretary Justine Greening to speak on behalf of schools in their constituencies who are likely losers in the new distribution of funding.
If the embarrassing U-turn on National Insurance Contributions for self-employed people is anything to go by, then Theresa May – fearful of upsetting the powerful Brexiteers in her own ranks and, even more so, the Daily Mail – is highly likely to call a halt to the National Funding Formula or at least look again at mitigating its impact.
But this is, I believe, a distraction. The National Funding Formula, to my mind, isn’t – or at least not entirely – the issue. At the moment, school funds are not distributed fairly across the country, north to south, urban to rural, and action has to be taken to level the playing field. But this alone won’t solve the problem.
Returning to my Sunday lunch analogy, let’s say there are two households cooking Sunday lunch, one in Barnsley and one in Hackney, London. At the moment, the Hackney household has £15 and Barnsley has £5 to spend. As a result of the National Sunday Lunch Formula, both households will, in future, receive £10. This is certainly fairer. However, the cost of food and the cost of cooking that food have increased and the number of people eating has also risen. £10 is not going to go as far. In other words, the two households are both alike in underfunding.
So whether or not the government goes ahead with the National Funding Formula is not going to solve the crisis in school funding. Every school will still end up with less money than it needs because the cost of running a school has increased and yet levels of funding has not kept up. The government can continue to trot out its well-worn, patronising line about funding being at record levels but unless it ensures funding keeps pace with costs then it just isn’t going to wash.
The sooner we change the parameters of the debate, the better. The school funding crisis is not going to be solved by simply dividing the same amount of money up in different ways; more money must also be put in the pot.
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