Ben Rochelle is a Senior Political Consultant at The Whitehouse Consultancy, specialising in education policy.
Headteachers in urban and rural areas, local councils, trade unions and MPs across the parties are up in arms at the Government’s draft National Funding Formula. It seeks to address historic regional variations in school funding, but a lack of additional money into the overall education pot means that many schools are set to lose money, while others will gain.
A report by the IFS last month revealed that spending per pupil in England is expected to tumble by 6.5 per cent in real terms between 2016 and 2020. This will be the first time that schools have faced real-term cuts for more than 30 years, with a £300 fall in spending per pupil in primary schools and a £400 fall in secondary schools between now and the end of the decade.
These new figures highlight the major challenges that many school leaders will continue to face at a time when schools are under pressure to recruit new teachers to accommodate a rising pupil population and manage the impact of the national living wage and higher employer contributions to national insurance and pensions. Additional stress has been caused by drastic cuts to the Education Services Grant, which Conservative councils maintain has led to a £600 million “black hole” in their resources.
Headteachers in London boroughs such as Camden, Lambeth, Lewisham and Hackney fac ae nearly three per cent cuts of their funds and are already preparing to make staff redundant and strip out non-essential services. One headteacher at a school in Hackney has said he will need to save £300,000 a year from his £8 million budget, and is expecting to make 15 of his 68 staff redundant. He claims that class sizes will increase from the mid-20s to 30 or more because of the changes. Elsewhere, teachers have reported cuts to spending on books, ICT, SEND provision and non-EBacc subjects.
Criticism in Parliament is widespread. The Public Accounts Committee has accused the Department for Education (DfE) of “burying its head in the sand” over the extent of financial problems in schools and told the department that pupils’ futures are at risk if it fails to change the funding plan. The Times reports that DfE ministers have hosted a series of meetings with Conservative MPs, who have told Government that they cannot accept cuts to the budgets of schools in their constituencies. According to various sources Justine Greening recently met with a range of disgruntled Conservative MPs including George Osborne, who allegedly told the Education Secretary: “Now you see why I didn’t do this.”
As the voices of protest grow louder, questions have been raised about whether the Prime Minister will ditch the plans all together. The Coalition Government twice abandoned similar attempts to replace the funding system, and there’s a precedent of dropping significant education policy with the decision to scrap forced academisation last year. Nevertheless, it’s doubtful that the new formula will be rejected completely. While the proposed spending cuts have upset many Conservative MPs, it was backbenchers from the party representing rural areas with underfunded school that forced the Government to bring forward the initiatives in the first place.
What then will the compromise involve? One option which the DfE may consider would be to modify the formula to ensure that no school loses money – a route taken in recent alterations to the high needs funding formula supporting children with disabilities. However, to do that would require more money from the Chancellor – something which seems unlikely. Another option would be to cap increases for schools who are currently placed to gain the most from the new formula, yet this would cost the DfE further critical support.
The Government will worry that changing the existing funding formula could result in a frenzy of other demands on public spending. Currently however, there appears to be little choice.