Education cuts: 'The full scale and cost of the government's reckless policies are only just being felt'

Among widespread education funding cuts, ministers have no idea how much it costs to implement the tsunami of policies they have inflicted on schools, writes one union leader

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Without a good supply of teachers, our education system will not thrive, and standards of education will decline.

And now it’s official – the National Audit Office (NAO) has confirmed that schools are facing huge funding challenges.

The full scale of the problem is laid bare in an NAO report Financial Sustainability of Schools which reveals that the government estimates that schools will be required to find £3 billion of savings by 2019/20 to cope with increasing cost pressures.

School leaders have become increasingly concerned at the state of their school’s finances and warned that things are close to breaking point. The NAO report does not give them much comfort. 

The auditors conclude that the widely reported 8 per cent cut, in real terms, to school funding for each pupil between 2014/15 and 2019/20, caused by the rising costs associated with pay rises, increased national insurance and pension costs, is not the end of the matter.

In the NAO’s words: “The Department’s savings estimate does not take account of the cost implications for schools of its policy changes”.

Incredibly, while the Department for Education (DfE) compiles a list of policy changes that it expects will affect schools, it has no plans to assess the financial implications for schools of those changes.

This leaves the NAO to conclude that the government: “Does not have assurance that its policies are affordable within current spending plans without adversely affecting educational outcomes. It leaves schools and multi-academy trusts to manage the consequences individually.”

This is an astonishing state of affairs. 

Tsunami of education policies 

Ministers have no idea how much it costs to implement the tsunami of education policies they have imposed on schools. It is not, moreover, as though these policies are negotiable.   

School leaders cannot choose, for example, not to implement the revised GCSE and A-level syllabuses. And it sounds as if ministers need reminding that the new textbooks needed for the revised GCSE and A-levels, do not come cheap.

A school leader member estimated that the resource costs for the new maths A and AS level syllabuses was in the region of £30,000, once the cost of five different text books and IT equipment have been factored in. (This is just one subject, remember. These costs will be multiplied across the curriculum range as the new GCSE and A-level qualifications are introduced.)

Even more startling is the NAO’s statement that the government has not clearly told school leaders about the scale of the £3 billion efficiency savings it is requiring from them. 

And here the government’s position becomes bizarre. 

The DfE accused the National Union of Teachers and Association of Teachers and Leaders of "scaremongering" when the two unions campaigned to raise awareness of the impending funding crisis.

Yet when faced with the NAO charge that the Department has not clearly alerted schools of the scale and pace of the savings that will be needed, civil servants reported “unions and sector organisations have been warning of the likely scale of savings needed”. (I must admit to being rather confused – are union warnings of financial cuts to school budgets "scaremongering" or have we, as the DfE suggests in the report, provided a useful information service to schools?) I think we should be told.

Standards of education will decline

Of course, the government’s stock response to all warnings of impending financial crises in schools is that its new school funding formula would address underfunding of schools in low funded authorities and give a fairer deal for all.

But joint analysis by the NUT and ATL reveals that 87 per cent of schools will have real terms cuts in government funding between 2015/16 to 2019/20.  Secondary school pupils will lose £477 of funding a year, while primary pupils will lose £339.

And, contrary to the prime minister’s commitment that her government would consider ‘just about managing’ (JAM) families before it made any policy announcements, schools with the greatest number of JAMs will lose significantly more, per pupil, than those with fewer JAMS.  (Schools should not, to coin a phrase, expect jam tomorrow in the form of the new funding formula.)

All of which paints a very bleak picture. The greatest danger is that school leaders, cut adrift from sources of good advice and guidance which the government should provide to help them manage a difficult funding climate, will make bad decisions. 

The NAO found that spending on teaching staff in state funded schools fell from 56 per cent to 51 per cent of a school’s total expenditure between 2010/11 to 2014/15 (in academies it fell from 55 per cent to 52 per cent between 2011/12 and 2014/15). 

Faced with budget pressures, the NAO report that school leaders commonly increase teachers’ contact hours, increase class sizes and reduce supply teaching costs. All of these actions are perfectly understandable as strategies to reduce staffing costs, but they all combine to make teachers’ working lives even more stressful as their workload increases yet further.

In the end, these actions will drive even more teachers from the profession – and without a good supply of teachers, our education system will not thrive, and standards of education will decline. Teachers are the bedrock of any education system. Without them, or without enough of them, things fall apart.

Reckless policy implementation

Government ministers and civil servants at the DfE must dread the publication of NAO and Public Account Committee (PAC) reports. 

There is a growing list of charges, contained in successive reports, which calls into question the stewardship that the DfE, as the department responsible for schools in England, exercises over the resources spent on our education system. 

The DfE’s accounts have been "qualified" for two years running because the department cannot properly account for spending in academy schools.

The PAC’s report on teacher training, Training new teachers, concluded that the DfE “does not understand, and shows little curiosity about, the size and extent of teacher shortages around the country and assumes headteachers will deal with gaps”. And now, hard on the heels of that devastating critique, comes the latest report on school funding.

I do not blame the civil servants at the DfE.  My experience of them is that they are expert professionals, dedicated to public service, and doing the best they can with the tools available to them. 

They are hampered and constrained by one simple fact: former education secretary Michael Gove’s grand experiment of a self-supporting, self-sustaining school system, was set in train without proper checks and balances, and without adequate central systems to hold academies to account for the proper use of public money, and without proper assurances that introducing a market into teacher training would actually guarantee enough teachers are trained.

All the current issues for the government, in demonstrating that it is making proper use of public money in the education budget, were predicted. 

The scale and extent of the problems that reckless policy implementation is causing will become clear to the public, and, in particular, to parents. 

And at that point, things will get very sticky for ministers – who will not, in the light of NAO and PAC reports, be able to say that they have not been warned.

Dr Mary Bousted is general secretary of the ATL union. She tweets as @MaryBoustedATL

For more columns by Mary, visit her back-catalogue 

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