Schools Bill: Funding remains the elephant in the room

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

It is funding, not academy status or attendance policies, that will have the biggest impact on helping to raise attainment in schools, it was said this week.

It comes after the Queen’s Speech included basic details of a new Schools Bill that will seek to bring into legislation many of the government ambitions included in the recent education White Paper (DfE, 2022a).

The Bill will include the headline requirement that every school should be part of a multi-academy trust, or on the way to joining or forming one, by 2030.

It will also include plans for all schools to publish at attendance policy, with the Department for Education publishing new attendance guidance this week (DfE, 2022b).

Elsewhere, there will be a mandatory register for children not in school and duties on local authorities to support families which are home-educating their children.

And Ofsted will get more legal clout to investigate and close illegal “unregistered” schools.

The DfE sees the academy plan as a key part of the so-called “parent pledge” and new targets for 90% of primary school children to achieve the expected standard in key stage 2 reading, writing and maths by 2030 (in 2019 the figure was 65%) and for the national average GCSE grade in both English language and maths to increase from 4.5 in 2019 to 5 by 2030 – as set out in the White Paper.

The parent pledge policy will focus on children who “fall behind” in maths or English and guarantees that they will get “the support they need to get back on track”.

Commenting after this week’s Queen Speech, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that, like the White Paper, the DfE’s plans are “largely lacking in ambition”.

He continued: “Moves for all schools to be part of an academy trust are really about a government which views academisation as unfinished business. To say this will support the arbitrary target of 90% of primary school children achieving the expected standard in reading, writing and maths by 2030 is a complete non-sequitur.

“What is needed to achieve that target is a massive injection of funding and resources to provide more individualised and specialist support for children with SEN and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. It is totally unrealistic to think this will happen within the current financial constraints.”

Education spending fell by 9% in real terms between 2009/10 and 2019/20 according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. It has been predicted that the government’s £7.1bn funding injection between 2019/20 and 2022/23 will see a real-terms increase in per-pupil spending of 6% over that period when taking expected increases in teacher pay into account (Sibieta, 2020).

The autumn Spending Review confirmed the government’s plans to invest an extra £4.7bn into the core schools’ budget by 2024/25. Chancellor Rishi Sunak claimed this funding would “restore per-pupil funding to 2010 levels in real-terms”.

The National Association of Head Teachers said that many of the government’s ambitions would be more easily achieved via “properly funding schools”.

On attendance, for example, general secretary Paul Whiteman said: “The solution to improving pupil attendance lies in properly funded support services that are able to intervene and help families at the earliest opportunity. Schools already do excellent work in this area but they need the support of specialist services too.”

He added: “Ensuring that all schools are properly funded, that they can access vital support services and enacting a meaningful plan to tackle child poverty should all be high on the list of the government’s priorities but are sadly lacking in the current proposals.”

On the academy plans, Mr Whiteman added that many school leaders “remain to be convinced that further structural reform is the key to improving pupil outcomes”. He said: “The government must address the legitimate concerns many school leaders have raised about this policy if it is to achieve its stated ambition.”

The academy plans come as the Local Government Association has published research (2022) showing that 92% of council-maintained schools are rated outstanding or good by Ofsted as of January 2022 compared to 85% of academies which have been graded since they converted.

The government’s White Paper set out plans to allow councils to form multi-academy trusts for the first time and the LGA wants the DfE to “utilise the knowledge and expertise of councils in supporting schools to improve”. The LGA said: “While academisation can be a positive choice in some cases, these findings raise questions over whether a one-size-fits-all approach is a guaranteed way of improving results and strengthening a school’s performance.”

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