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I bet Lord Agnew a bottle of Liebfraumilch that I can find savings in the DfE

Betting schools champagne that they can find savings was simply galling – the era of ministerial denial about funding cuts must end

Champagne

Betting schools champagne that they can find savings was simply galling – the era of ministerial denial about funding cuts must end

There wasn’t much champagne about when I was growing up. It was the era before most British people would even consider buying wine to drink at home. I recall a day when the parents of a German exchange student came for lunch. My dad had rather proudly bought a bottle of gaudily-labelled white wine with the – in those days – tantalisingly exotic name "Liebfraumilch". The German father sat down at the table, inspected the bottle, paused, and proclaimed: "Ah, ja: scheissewein."

So, while I may not know a lot about fine wines, nor indeed about truffles (more of those in a moment), I do know that there’s a funding crisis engulfing our education system.

This week academies minister Lord Agnew said that he would bet any headteacher “a bottle of champagne and a letter of commendation” that he could find more potential savings in their school. He told the Schools and Academies Show in Birmingham that he was “like a pig hunting for truffles when it comes to finding waste in schools”.

I think many leaders of schools and colleges will feel pretty patronised by that comment. Therefore, on their behalf, I would like to bet Lord Agnew a bottle of the cheapest, most austerity-friendly Liebfraumilch, that we could identify savings in the Department for Education and across government more generally.

That’s not necessarily because I think government is especially wasteful, but because it’s almost always possible to find a cost here or there which could be trimmed.

In fact, as schools and colleges have already relentlessly pursued every possible efficiency saving, I’m not at all sure how possible it is to find more.

But the wider point is that this is a question of scale.

Analysis by the School Cuts coalition shows that school budgets have been cut by around £2.8bn since 2015. And leaders know that with reductions of that magnitude, we long ago passed the point of balancing budgets through efficiency savings such as switching from colour to black-and-white photocopying.

Here’s what one school business leader told us in an ASCL survey we conducted earlier this year: “We've run out of rabbits to pull from hats. Every contract and cost has been reviewed, every ounce of surplus fat removed and every stream streamlined. We are at the point now where if funding does not rise in real terms education is going to suffer.”

As anyone who’s run a school or college knows, the vast majority of spending goes on staffing. Cuts on such a massive scale inevitably result in restructuring and fewer staff.

That in turn means larger class sizes, a reduced curriculum, and – as we are now increasingly witnessing – less support for vulnerable learners. And all of it against a backdrop of cuts to the kind of public services which provided a safety net in our most disadvantaged communities.

Dealing with shrinking budgets and increased pressures is a miserable process for headteachers and their staff. As one MAT leader said to me recently: “I came into this role to lead learning. But all I do is make budget cuts.”

And, increasingly, there is evidence that the pressure on funding is putting education standards at risk – standards that have been hard won over many years.

Which makes ill-judged remarks from ministers particularly galling.

First, we had the chancellor’s comment that capital funding announced in the Budget would help schools to “buy the little extras they need”.

Now we have Lord Agnew’s "champagne challenge", his proclamation that he can sniff out more efficiencies in the beleaguered education system quicker than a boar hunting down truffles.

It also doesn’t help that these comments follow the government’s misleading use of statistics to defend its record on school funding – in which it cited figures that included spending on universities and private school fees.

This is looking increasingly like a government in denial and out-of-touch, an administration so pre-occupied by Brexit that it doesn’t have the band-width to deal with the crisis unfolding in our schools and colleges. Instead it ends up trivialising the scale of the problem and patronising the people who are responsible for the nation’s young people.

This has to stop. We need to wave goodbye to the age of denial. Instead we need strategic thinking about what we expect from our education system. We need serious consideration about how we are going to match those expectations with sufficient resources. We need a long-term commitment which sees education not as figures in a ledger but an investment in our most precious resource: our young people.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

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