'Can't ministers just be honest about education funding cuts?'

School funding is at breaking point - ministers need to stop burying their heads in the sand, writes Paul Whiteman

Paul Whiteman

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Back in September, I wrote about the strength of feeling amongst school leaders that motivated 2,000 of them to march through Westminster to demand more money for schools.

Last week's letter from the WorthLess? campaign has brought school funding back into the headlines – and rightly so.

School budgets are at absolute breaking point. School leaders have made all the obvious savings – now they are faced with having to make major changes to the way they provide education. Yet the government’s response is something I’ve described as "institutional deafness".

Up to now, the debate has pretty much been defined by teachers, school leaders, parents and governors, saying, "School funding is in crisis," and the government saying, "Oh no, it isn’t."

"Oh yes, it is," we repeat. "Oh no, it isn’t," they reply. Just look at the comments from ministers in this last week's school funding debate in Parliament.

All the while, schools are facing heartbreaking choices. One member of the NAHT heads' union in the West Midlands put it very succinctly, recently.

She said that despite relentless campaigning, including letters to the chancellor, MP briefings, local meetings and meetings in Westminster, school funding has still been reduced in real terms and the government is still not listening to the genuine concerns of school leaders, parents and governors.

School funding in crisis

She went on to say that spending on education should never be thought of as a burden on the Treasury. Rather, it is an essential investment in our children’s future, and that of our nation.

The cuts have forced school leaders to reduce staff time and support for the most vulnerable pupils, including those with additional needs. They have also meant reductions to resources and equipment and led to fewer subject choices at secondary schools and less varied activities in primary schools.

There are ever-increasing demands on schools, and only new money from the Treasury will solve the school funding crisis.

We would like more honesty from the government about how much it is spending on schools and young people.

The Comprehensive Spending Review is happening now. We want the government to use that moment to announce more money for schools.

We also argued that Ofsted should take a view on whether funding was sufficient, and we had some indication from the chief inspector that it will.

Amanda Spielman said she believed that "schools are working certainly with less money than they had four or five years ago. It's a really tough challenge for them adapting."

So how do we end the cycle of attack and rebuttal?

From NAHT’s perspective, there are more pupils than ever, which means that funding is falling in real terms per pupil.

The Department for Education has listened somewhat to us and other unions and has found a little extra money, but now we need real movement from the Treasury. The trouble is, the chancellor doesn’t appear to be listening.

Just to restore what has been lost since 2015, we need £2-3 billion, but we should be wary of putting a figure on what we need for the future until there’s a consensus about what schools should be expected to do.

The more expectations are placed upon schools, and the more these activities and interventions cost, the more money we’ll need.

Much has been said recently about a 10-year plan for funding in education, just as we’ve seen in the NHS. That’s one way to go, but really what we’re talking about is establishing an education budget based on need and ambition, rather than just on what’s affordable.

Today, Westminster will see another demonstration, this time from the leaders of maintained nurseries. Despite a small injection of cash a couple of weeks ago, their funding is only guaranteed until July next year, and many of them are on a knife-edge.

MPs are waking up, fortunately. According to our research, more than half are now prepared to say that the school funding crisis is real.

It’s a cross-party issue, too, with members from all sides of the House of Commons working together to secure debates and ask questions.

Undoubtedly, school funding will come up again in Education Questions today. When it does, and someone says, "School funding is in crisis," it would be a major step forward if ministers didn’t say, "Oh no, it isn’t."

Ministers have already acknowledged that school budgets are tight and that more is being expected of schools than ever before. I worry that the reason they won’t go further, and admit that more money is needed, is that it would put their Treasury colleagues under extreme pressure.

But they do need to be honest now. Otherwise young people will continue to lose out.

Paul Whiteman is general secretary of the NAHT union

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