‘Broken’ school funding system condemned by MPs

Schools and colleges at risk of being stretched 'beyond breaking point' says Commons education committee 

Helen Ward

FE: what is the cost of running a course?

Deep problems with the “broken” school funding system need to be fixed with a multi-billion pound cash injection – going well beyond the forthcoming spending review, a report from MPs has said.

The damning report from the Commons Education Committee highlights the “astonishing disconnect” between the available money and the costs of delivering the system.

School funding: £12.6 billion needed by 2023, unions say

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Post-16: 'FE must be at the heart of the 10-year funding plan'

It says that that without immediate cash and a long-term plan the Department for Education is risking schools and colleges being stretched “beyond breaking point”. 

The report comes just days before a new prime minister comes into office – and Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union – which is calling for a £3 billion immediate increase followed by further rises – has said the report shows that schools “need more than promises”.

“Candidates have pledged extra money for education during their campaigns, but schools need more than promises on the side of a bus. Schools need real money for real children in real schools now,” Mr Courtney said.

Research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies has found that total school spending per pupil fell by 8 per cent in real terms in the eight years to 2017-18 – with post-16 education being particularly hard hit.

The MPs said they heard “disturbing reports” of the DfE spending millions on advisers who were suggesting to schools that they cut children’s food portions or use spare staff to cover three simultaneous classes in a hall.

They said it was clear that pupil premium funding was being used to “plug holes” in school budgets.

And they added that they were not convinced of the adequacy of the current framework for holding multi-academy trusts to account over the way they distribute funding to their schools.

The MPs pointed out that the government’s previous mantra that “more money than ever is going into education” had been counterproductive and “unnecessarily adversarial” – and it welcomed the recent change in rhetoric.

But it added that it was not just more money, but a long-term strategy that was crucial to mending the system.

“Throughout our inquiry we encountered a troubling lack of long-term vision – an issue compounded by the vagaries of the politically-driven spending review cycle which has encouraged a winner-takes-all short-termism wholly unsuited to the strategic cross-departmental approach needed to fix the broken funding system,” the report states.

“Most concerning was the astonishing disconnect between the available funding and the costs of delivering a quality education and support system. Indeed, we were unable to determine whether the department had a clear idea of how much money was needed to fund the various components of the school and college education system appropriately and efficiently. We suspected not.”

The MPs are now calling for a 10-year plan for education funding focused on what schools and colleges are expected to provide and the cost of doing so.

“Education is crucial to our nation’s future. It is the driver of future prosperity and provides the ladder of opportunity to transform the life chances of millions of our young people,” Robert Halfon, the Conservative chair of the committee, said.

“If it is right that the NHS can have a 10-year plan and a five-year funding settlement, then surely education, perhaps the most important public service, should also have a 10-year plan and a long-term funding settlement.”

The report also makes the following recommendations:  

  • Urgently address underfunding in further education by increasing the base rate from £4,000 to at least £4,760, rising in line with inflation.
  • Increase high needs funding for special educational needs and disabilities to address a projected £1.2 billion deficit.
  • Implement the full roll-out of the National Funding Formula as soon as feasible.
  • Extend pupil premium to 16 to 18-year-olds and ensure all eligible students attract pupil premium.
  • Secure from the Treasury the full amount of estimated pupil premium money that has not been claimed because students did not register for free school meals, and allocate this money to disadvantaged children.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "This report is a damning indictment of the government’s dreadful record on school and college funding. It rightly identifies the fact that the government’s mantra that 'more money than ever is going into education’ has added insult to injury at a time when schools and colleges have suffered devastating real-terms cuts.

“It is spot-on about the need for a long-term education funding plan which is based upon what schools and colleges actually need."

Jules White, the headteacher who has led the 'Worth Less?' funding campaign, commented: "Schools are being increasingly asked to commit time, resource and scarce capacity to covering services in areas traditionally provided by social care and the police. 

"If schools are to be put in the position of having to deliver in these areas, then we must be resourced properly, or else a profoundly difficult situation will get much worse."

A DfE spokesperson said: “We welcome this detailed and considered report from the education select committee and will respond in full in due course.

“While it is accurate to say that school funding is at its highest level, we do recognise that there are budgeting challenges. This government is investing more than ever before in early education and childcare and since 2010 the overall core schools budget for five to 16-year-olds has been protected in real terms.

“We have also protected the base rate of funding for 16 to 19-year-olds until 2020 and are providing additional funding for the delivery of the new gold standard T Levels, rising to an additional £500 million every year once they are fully rolled out.

“We are glad to see that school and further education funding is being highlighted as an important issue ahead of the next spending review, where the education secretary will back the sector to have the resources they need to deliver world-class standards across the board.”

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Helen Ward

Helen Ward

Helen Ward is a reporter at Tes

Find me on Twitter @teshelen

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