Opinion: 'Schools will really feel the squeeze this year. And it isn't going to be pretty'

30th August 2015 at 09:00
Budget cuts

It’s crunch time. By most estimates, the coming school year is when most heads and teachers will really begin to feel the squeeze as their budgets are tightened – and it’s becoming clear that it isn’t going to be pretty.

It’s only a few months since the general election, when Conservative politicians, along with their counterparts in other parties, were happily telling all and sundry that educational funding per pupil was sacrosanct.

And they still say it publicly – because if you squint, it’s true. It’s true if you don’t take into account inflation, cuts to 16-19 funding and increased contributions to pensions and national insurance. A generous person might call it massaging the figures.

Indeed, one doesn’t have to look far for evidence that this will all add up to desperate times. The hugely respected Institute for Fiscal Studies – which is noted for its politically neutral stance – has calculated that schools are looking at a real-terms cut of up to 12 per cent over the next five years.

Let us be clear: that is vast.

One headteacher, Robin Bevan, told TES that the situation was even worse than in other straitened times. “In the 1990s you weren’t fearful of the school’s long-term funding position,” he said. “The trimming was saving tens of thousands, not hundreds of thousands, as it is today.” His school is facing a shortfall of £200,000 this year.

The Department for Education is privately making little effort to keep up the pretence. In a move that has all the makings of a farce, it has written to heads asking for advice on how to save money. The words “turkeys” and “Christmas” spring to mind.

Given that staff account for roughly 80 to 90 per cent of most schools’ budgets, heads know exactly where the savings are going to have to be made: manpower, teaching assistants, teachers. Everything else is mucking around at the margins.

Another teacher approached by TES, Kim Knappett, explained: “Nowadays I don’t have time for making worksheets smaller. I’m not going to worry about a few extra sheets of paper, because in the great scheme of things that’s not going to buy you a teacher.”

Pared-back public spending – and the public sector pay squeeze that follows – is also likely to affect the crisis in teacher supply; it will make it much harder to recruit new entrants to the profession as wage packets in the private sector start to outstrip inflation.

Heads will battle on. Notwithstanding a national strike or two, so will teachers. That is what they do. No doubt educational standards will continue to rise – primarily because of the hard work of teachers in front of the clapped-out interactive whiteboards – and politicians will go into the next general election making claims about having shrunk the size of the state without having damaged standards. But in the long term, it’s hard to say. It’s in the long term that we’ll see the consequences of crumbling buildings, teacher supply in tatters and pupils who don’t think the state believes in them enough to invest in them.

This government was elected on an austerity ticket – and that will remain its political imperative, whether the educational community likes it or not. But a slightly less surreptitious decimation of schools’ budgets would be very welcome.

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