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The DfE can’t worm its way out of this crisis

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When Nicky Morgan was handed the cans of worms otherwise known as the English education system in July 2014, little did she know what was in store for her. Nevertheless, she hugged them close and kept them closed until the election last year. Then, one by one, she began to open them and all those little worms started wriggling out.

First there was workload, then recruitment, exam reform and primary assessment. And now rearing its ugly head is the big fat worm of funding.

School budgets have already been cut – despite what the government might try to claim – falling in real terms, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, by 8 per cent between 2014-15 and 2019-20. If your eyes aren’t already starting to water, add to that the phasing out of the Education Services Grant, reductions in funding for 16- to 19-year-olds, a 1 per cent pay increase for staff with no extra cash to fund it, plus the costs associated with the rising national insurance and pension contributions (no small fry when staffing costs are some 80 per cent of the school budget).

This has led more than 80 per cent of secondary schools to cut staff and some 77 per cent of secondary heads to warn that the financial pressures they are under are having a “detrimental effect” on the education that they provide, according to a survey published today by the Association of School and College Leaders.

The new fairer funding formula, promised in the Autumn Statement and due to be rolled out in 2017, will help some schools avoid disaster. For others, particularly those in London, however, it will pile on yet another layer of cuts. The outlook isn’t looking good, though.

The first attempt at this, in 2014, didn’t come off and was referred to privately by prime minister David Cameron as “Gove’s plan to lose me the next general election”, as former schools minister David Laws reveals in this week's magazine.

This time round, it looks as though another election, the one for London mayor on 5 May, could scupper the implementation timetable. Unsurprisingly, when many inner London schools will be big losers, the government does not want to publish the financial implications of the redistribution of cash before then, squeezing the timetable. This could result in heads having to absorb further cuts to their budgets with only seven months’ notice.

What started as a valiant attempt to redress the balance is in serious danger of instead deteriorating into a mess and heaping yet further pressure on an overburdened, overstretched and underfunded system.

On top of these funding challenges is the turmoil caused by primary assessment and the accountability measure Progress 8. The government has made a dog’s dinner of key stage 2 assessment with a mash-up of methods that will make your head spin. How that will provide the predictability and confidence on which to measure progress at key stage 4 is anyone’s guess.

Or perhaps that’s the point: make KS2 results so bad that progress at KS4 is inevitable – Morgan’s cunning plan to win the next-but-one election, perhaps? Whatever the intention, the outcry over assessment has been so loud that the secretary of state has been forced to issue a video to try to counter it. But appealing though conspiracy is, the answer, as always, is more likely to be cock-up.

Morgan and the Department for Education should heed the first rule of cans of worms: beware opening more than one at a time. Or you could be the one doing the wriggling.

@AnnMroz

This is an article from the 4 March edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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