Cllr Andrew Wood is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Tower Hamlets Council and a councillor for Canary Wharf Ward.
Teaching unions and the Labour Party routinely claim that school budgets are being cut. It is true that many schools are going through difficult times, especially if they have declining pupil numbers. But the complexity of school funding has allowed an overly simplistic narrative to emerge, implying that all or most school budgets are being cut. This is not true and can be contradicted if detailed analysis is available per school. Unfortunately that information is not easily accessible.
Rising pension costs, higher national minimum wages, staff wage increases, changes in pupil numbers, and general inflation are all factors making budgeting for headteachers and school governors more difficult. Understandably they want more cash. But to understand changes in school finances we need to do it at school level as that is what local parents are concerned about.
With major changes coming in school funding across England due to the National Funding Formula, this subject is going to get more complex rather than less. It will result in good news in a number of areas. However in those areas like mine with high levels of pupil funding it will be easy to present national changes as involving rich areas benefiting at the expense of the poor – which is incorrect.
In the meantime, the complexity has made it easier for misleading information to circulate.
James Cleverly MP has already got Sir David Norgrove, Chair of the UK Statistics Authority to look at national claims made by the School Cuts campaign website. Sir David said “We believe the headline statement that “91% of schools face funding cuts” risks giving a misleading impression of future changes in school budgets. The method of calculation may also give a misleading impression of the scale of change for some particular schools.” He also said, “It was not however possible to reproduce the exact figures published on the website, as the underlying data are not publicly available and the methodology is not wholly clear.”
But when it is possible to look at detailed local school data, we can also find stories giving a misleading impression.
For example, in Tower Hamlets, the Labour Group issued a press release recently which said, “New analysis from the National Education Union (NEU) of schools funding allocations show the Government has broken its promise that there would be “a cash increase for every school in every region” – with 31 schools in Tower Hamlets alone having seen their funding cut in 2018/19.”
I looked at the claim in detail as they related to Schools block funding allocations – the data from which the NEU made their claim. I found that of the 31 schools listed 29 schools had a reduction in pupil numbers year on year, as schools are funded on a per pupil basis. This means their budgets are reduced (as the budget moves with the child) but their budgets fell by less than the % fall in pupil numbers.
Labour, by saying they should not have budget cuts, are in effect saying children cannot move schools – or if they do, they cannot take their budget with them, hardly fair. We also have an issue with declining birth rates in Tower Hamlets meaning fewer children entering school.
One school had converted into an academy school and was compensated for the change in business rates. Labour presented this as a budget cut; it was not. Another did see its budget fall by 0.1 per cent, more than its fall in pupil numbers, due to a big fall in the number of pupils learning English as an additional language.
Separately in a recent by-election leaflet Labour claimed that seven local schools were suffering from ‘deep Tory cuts’. In fact only one had a budget reduction last year, caused entirely by fewer school pupils. Their press release actually contradicted their own election leaflets as six of the schools they claimed suffered from budget cuts were not in their press release as suffering from budget cuts… They did not mention the other 58 local schools with funding increases.
Between 2017/18 and 2018/19 total block funding for all primary and secondary schools in Tower Hamlets had increased by 2.4 per cent. Total pupil numbers were up 1.3 per cent. In this one year funding increased in line with inflation and by more than pupil numbers. Most people would not call this a cut. And as long as increased pupil numbers do not create the need for extra staff, they do not have a major financial impact.
But schools with declining pupil numbers do suffer as it is not always easy to reduce staffing and overhead costs in proportion to reductions in pupil numbers.
The Tower Hamlets Labour Group also claimed that the National Funding Formula changes would result in a £24 million cut to Tower Hamlets schools over the next 10 years. They supplied no backup to this claim.
They also did not mention that Tower Hamlets gets £5,893 per year per primary school pupil, the highest rate in the country. York by contrast only gets £3,548 per pupil, the lowest in the country. That is a 66 per cent gap but the gap between teacher’s pay in Inner London and outside London is 21 per cent. London is an expensive city, but it is not clear that it is 66 per cent more expensive then York.
And these numbers do not include Pupil Premium which is worth an extra £1,320 for primary school pupils in receipt of free school meals. It is how the government ensures poorer pupils get extra funding.
But doing the detailed analysis to refute the Labour claims required a knowledge of school funding, downloading lots of spreadsheets, and scarce time which not everybody will have. It is time that somebody centralised this kind of analysis down to an individual school level, making it easy to access and comprehend. It should not be done by the unions themselves for obvious reasons.
The Department of Education should produce some kind of analysis of the information it already holds using data tools like Tableau especially while we transition to the National Funding Formula. Until this is done it will allow special interest groups to distort the reality of school funding. School budgets have got more difficult to manage and some areas have seen real terms cuts, but I suspect that the reality is not as bad as people’s perceptions. It would then be possible to have an adult discussion about what to do about it.