School funding: Clever sleight of hand or a mess?

The government is talking about school improvement but it isn't putting its money where its mouth is, warns Geoff Barton

Are the government's promises about school funding just sleight of hand, asks Geoff Barton

For anyone who thinks we are out of the woods over the education funding crisis, this week has demonstrated that there are some tangled thickets ahead.

In its submission over teacher pay to the School Teachers’ Review Body, the government set out proposals that amount to a 3 per cent increase in the total pay bill in 2020-21.

This is the first stage in delivering its plan to increase starting salaries to £30,000 by 2022-23.

From September, newly qualified teachers would get £26,000 (an increase of 6.7 per cent) while teachers on the upper and leadership pay range would be in line for a 2.5 per cent increase (all of this averaging out at 3 per cent overall).

The school funding 'fantasy'

The government considers it “appropriate” that these awards should be funded out of the additional money it has allocated to schools over the next three years.

However, much of the additional £2.6 billion in year one – 2020-21 – has already been assigned to “levelling up” the worst-funded schools, an increase in pupil numbers and an injection of £780 million into high needs.

The upshot is that about one-quarter of schools in England will receive only an inflationary funding increase of 1.8 per cent.

Given that the total pay bill per teacher would increase by 3 per cent under the government proposals, it is difficult to see how this could be met, without these schools having to make further cuts.

Even in schools where there is a bigger funding increase than 1.8 per cent, the extra money will be spent on the teacher pay award and other inflationary costs.

The idea that there will be enough left over to reverse the cuts that have taken place since 2015 is pure fantasy.

Reversing cuts or boosting teacher pay?

And that is the truth of the matter. The much-vaunted extra money being put into schools could reverse some of the cuts or it could fund an uplift in teacher pay. But it simply cannot do both.

This is either a clever sleight of hand by the government, or a bit of a mess. You decide.

Either way, it has achieved the outcome of taking the sting out the school funding campaign in the run-up to the general election and allowing the government to say it is doing something about the recruitment crisis.

And doing something about the recruitment crisis is, of course, essential. Improving starting salaries will help to make teaching more competitive in the graduate jobs market.

But the crisis is not just in recruitment – it is also one of retention.

And the proposal for a 2.5 per cent award for experienced teachers and leaders – after years of real-terms cuts to their salaries – hardly seems like the best way to improve this situation.

So now we have the prospect of a pay award that leaves many teachers feeling undervalued, may not solve the issue of teacher shortages, and is unaffordable.

This is what happens when a government makes a flurry of promises but doesn’t put in enough money to deliver them. It ends up having to fudge everything.

The post-16 funding fudge

Let’s not forget either about post-16 education, where the fudge is even messier. Further education gets an extra £400 million in 2020-21: a one-year only settlement, which inches up the funding rate per student for the first time since 2013.

How this is meant to fund pay awards and reverse cuts is anyone’s guess. The reality, of course, is that it cannot remotely do so. 

What this all goes to show is not only are we not out of the woods on either funding or teacher supply, but that we also need a better way of doing business.

Wouldn’t it just be a matter of obvious common sense to introduce a funding mechanism that assesses the actual costs of schools and colleges and then allocates funding to match?

Unless we do this, we will be forever trapped in an endless and wearying cycle of rhetoric, fudge and crisis. 

This does nothing for the morale of the profession. It does nothing for the young people we serve. 

And it certainly doesn’t do much to restore faith in a government that serves up the rhetoric of educational improvement but not the resources to achieve it.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton

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