Footage of a child with learning difficulties, sobbing as the teaching assistant they worked with for the past three years is let go, or the extra pupils being placed in already full classes, are unlikely to make the 6pm or 10pm news. If media coverage ensures that the crisis in our NHS is at the forefront of the public’s mind, the crisis in our education system, while less visible, is no less an issue of concern.
But make no mistake: our schools are heading for a very real budget crisis, and it will be our children who truly foot the bill.
Last year, more than half of secondary schools overspent. The situation is so dire the National Audit Office (NAO) has warned that by 2020 schools will be worse funded than at any time since the mid-90s. The Government’s promise to maintain school funding per pupil in cash-terms during this Parliament will inevitably lead to real-terms cuts in our schools. Indeed, analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has shown there will be at least a 7% real terms reduction in per-pupil spending between 2015-16 and 2019-20.
What’s more, the funding problems facing our schools are likely to be made worse as a result of plans to introduce a new National Funding Formula.
The principle of fair funding, in particular of addressing areas where education has been historically underfunded, is the right one. Every child deserves and needs an excellent education and the resources that enable that to be delivered. But you cannot create a “fair” funding settlement for our schools in a context of overall cuts. The fact of the matter is that there is an inadequate level of overall funding in the system. In that context, redistributing an inadequate total funding pot simple means taking vital funds away from good schools in areas of high deprivation and allocating them to other parts of the country.
The reduction in funding that schools in Greenwich and Woolwich are facing will have a significant detrimental impact on pupils. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has made clear: the proposed new schools funding formula will result in the largest cuts to school spending per pupil since the early 1980s. Under the Government’s proposals, and allowing also for inflation over the course of this Parliament, our local schools will need to budget for funding pressures in the region of 10–15% over the three years from 2018/19. Funding reductions of this magnitude will inevitably fall on staffing budgets, as well as cuts in the materials, books, IT resources, and extra-curricular activities.
The proposed new schools national funding formula will compound an already precarious financial situation for many of our local schools; cost pressures that, as the National Audit Office (NAO) has identified, are the direct result of Government policy, such as changes to employers’ national insurance, pension contributions, the national living wage and the apprenticeship levy.
Local Heads are already doing their best to save money while fighting tooth and nail to keep delivering a high quality education to their pupils. But many tell me that there is not much left to cut. To proceed with the introduction of this reform at a time when local schools are already struggling to maintain or improve performance levels with reduced cash budgets, and when savings of 8% are required to meet wider cost pressures by 2019/20, will have a devastating impact on many of the schools in my constituency.
Our local schools, like the majority across London, have been transformed over the past two decades. This achievement was the result of substantial investment in school buildings, facilities, staff and support staff, as well as strong leadership to drive up quality and standards. I am incredibly proud of the schools in my constituency, almost all of which are good or outstanding, and the work that they do to deliver an excellent education for all our children. They do so despite the challenges posed by high numbers of children with English as an Additional Language, a highly mobile population, high levels of deprivation, and high numbers of children with special educational needs. They are able to do this currently because they have the resources to support those children who need additional help. The reduction in funding that would result from the introduction of the proposed new schools funding formula would put this progress at risk.
Analysis of illustrative school-level allocations by London Councils suggests that £335 million of additional funding – just 1% of the schools block – could be used to protect all schools from reduced cash budgets and enable schools that gain under the proposals to reach their formula allocations sooner. That should surely be the Government’s focus, rather than pursuing the discredited vanity projects of new grammar schools or throwing billions of pounds at a staggeringly inefficient free schools programme.
The priority for education should be policies that will enable every child to reach their full potential and the investment to make that happen. We need a world-class education system for all our children, not just the privileged few and an education budget that is protected.