School funding: Ministers must end their ‘institutional deafness’

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Just days after MPs debated the school funding crisis, it is revealed that school leaders have written to millions of families to warn of the negative impact of budget cuts on school provision. Pete Henshaw reports on the growing pressure for ministers to act over school funding.

School leaders have written to more than three million families in the past three months to warn of the negative impact of real-terms cuts to funding for schools.

It comes as the government is being put under sustained pressure to act on school funding and to drop its “institutional deafness” on the issue.

Last week MPs in Westminster debated school funding after an e-petition started by two North East primary school headteachers reached 100,000 signatures.

However, MPs, unions and others campaigning for better funding were left frustrated with the response of schools minister Nick Gibb during the debate and have urged him to “think again”.

Meanwhile, the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) held its National Executive meeting on Friday (March 8) when the issue of funding was a major talking point.

General secretary Paul Whiteman revealed that its members have written to three million families to warn about funding and accused ministers of failing to face up to the issue.

He pointed to the e-petition, which continues to collect signatures and now stands at around 110,000, as well as an NAHT/ComRes survey of 151 MPs showing that 54 per cent agree there is a funding crisis in schools.

An investigation by The Times recently has found that only 10 per cent of school leaders are confident they will have enough money to maintain standards in the coming five years.

Meanwhile, the union-led School Cuts website shows that around 18,000 schools are facing real-terms cuts in funding per-pupil – the equivalent of nine out of every 10 schools. The House of Commons Library has also published school funding figures by constituency.

Mr Whiteman said that the weight of evidence on school funding was becoming impossible to ignore: “This feels like a pivotal moment. School budgets are at absolute breaking point. School leaders have made all the obvious savings – now they are faced with having to make major changes to the way they provide education. Yet the government’s response is one of institutional deafness.”

Mr Whiteman also says that MPs of all parties must step up to the plate to hold ministers to account. Writing in SecEd in January, he said: “We do need an alternative to the tin-eared and leaden-footed approach of the past two years. MPs must also show that they have a proper grasp of the funding issue too, they really must. Up to now they are still allowing the government to wriggle off the hook.”

The crux of the argument continues to centre on the claim from ministers that school funding is at record levels, which it technically is. However, this claim frustrates campaigners who say that this deliberately ignores huge rises in student numbers, inflation and increasing cost pressures that are resulting in real-terms cuts to per-pupil funding (see below).

The fund row explained

The government maintains its position that school funding is at record levels. This rhetoric angers campaigners who point out that with student numbers continuing to rise, as well as a range of increasing costs for schools – such as National Insurance, teachers’ pay and pension contributions – real-terms per-pupil funding continues to be hit.

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).

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. That includes the extra £1.3 billion for schools and high needs, announced by ministers in 2017 and invested across 2018/19 and 2019/20.

Last year, schools minister Nick Gibb said that this additional funding on top of the schools budget set at the Spending Review 2015 means that “per-pupil funding is being maintained in real terms between 2017/18 and 2019/20”.

However, the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) has said that school spending per-pupil has fallen by eight per cent in real-terms between 2009/10 and 2017/18, mainly driven by 55 per cent cuts to local authority spending and 20 per cent cuts to sixth-form funding. In 2017, it updated its analysis in light of the £1.3 billion investment finding that this would reduce the real-term cuts facing schools to 4.6 per cent between 2015 and 2019.

The Association of School and College Leaders said last year that £2 billion a year will be needed by 2020 to address the funding situation. It says that £2.8 billion has been lost from school budgets in real-terms since 2015.

The government says that the reforms to the National Funding Formula (NFF) will allocate every local authority more money for every pupil, in every school, in both 2018/19 and 2019/20, compared to their 2017/18 baselines.

There is further mistrust after the UK Statistics Authority last year raised “serious concerns” about the Department for Education’s “presentation and use” of statistics on funding. This stemmed from DfE tweets and blogs that “exaggerated” spending figures and included education expenditure unrelated to state-maintained schools. In October, Sir David Norgrove, chair of the UKSA urged the DfE to ensure that data is “properly presented in a way that does not mislead”.

Meanwhile, the House of Commons Petitions Committee, which oversees the petitions submitted to Parliament and the subsequent debates of those that reach 100,000 signatures, has taken issue with the government’s written response to the funding e-petition.

The e-petition itself states: “Schools are having to make difficult choices on how to spend their limited funding as their income has not kept pace with the rise in costs since 2010. All schools are working very hard to ‘make ends meet’ but this is becoming increasingly difficult and verging on almost impossible.”

The written response, published last month, acknowledged “budgeting challenges” but restated that there is “more money going into our schools”. It was rejected by the Petitions Committee because it “did not directly address the request of petition”. It has requested, but has yet to receive, an updated response from ministers.

This frustration continued during the e-petition debate last Monday, March 4, when Mr Gibb said: “While more money is going into our schools than ever before, we recognise the budgeting challenges that schools face as we ask them to achieve more for children and to absorb cost increases, such as employer’s National Insurance and higher pension contributions to teachers’ pension funds. That means that it is essential to do all we can to help schools make the most of every pound.”

Responding to Mr Gibb during the debate, Liz Twist MP accused the minister of refusing to “validate” the experiences of headteachers who had launched and signed the petition. She said: “I am really disappointed with the minister’s response, because he is saying to headteachers such as Mr Ramanandi (one of the headteachers who launched the e-petition) and others that their experience is not valid. That is not what we are all finding.

“It is not just the headteachers; all of us in the chamber, from every party, have made the point that we know that schools in our area need additional funding. The whole point of this debate was to ensure that that issue was raised, so I am sorry that the minister appears not to have addressed it. I hope very much that he will think again.”

Mr Whiteman added: “The government cannot avoid this issue any longer. Class sizes are rising and the range of subjects schools can afford to offer is shrinking. Our system is failing the most vulnerable pupils, at the most critical time in their lives.

“Governors, parents, staff, and school leaders have been banging the drum for more funding for more than two years now. The government has lost the argument. Everyone now understands that only new money from the Treasury will solve the school funding crisis.”

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