The Department for Education has plunged to new depths by claiming that schools could solve their funding crisis by raiding their surpluses. This was the DfE’s Permanent Secretary's extraordinary suggestion yesterday when he appeared before the Public Accounts Committee.
It is perhaps timely to remind Jonathan Slater that official data shows almost 10,000 schools – more than one-third of the total – were in deficit in 2015-16 and almost 4,000 of those had been in deficit for two years. Those schools certainly can’t spend surpluses they don’t have.
These latest deficit figures are from before schools felt the impact of the current government’s funding freeze, imposed after its election in June 2015. Since then £2.8 billion has been wiped from school funding in real terms and still more schools will have plunged into deficit.
Advising schools to spend up to the hilt is just reckless and an attempt to avoid the government’s responsibility for funding education properly. Some schools do still have reserves, but they are generally small and most of them already committed.
While the DfE does not suggest how much schools should keep in reserve, accountants generally tell businesses that three months’ operating expenses should be their target. Schools with reserves are holding on average only one month in surplus.
'Clutching at straws'
The DfE is clearly clutching at straws to cover up its shortcomings on school and college funding. It is the Government’s prime educational duty to secure the financial viability of schools and colleges and to provide a sufficient supply of qualified teachers and school leaders, but the DfE demonstrates time and again that it is unable to do so.
The £1.3 billion extra funding promised by Justine Greening for 2018 to 2020 will not reverse the real-terms cuts faced by schools, nor will it make up for the £2.8 billion annual cut in spending power since 2015.
As the National Audit Office has said, cuts in spending power of this magnitude have not been experienced by schools since the mid-1990s – when they led to a huge parental movement called Fight Against Cuts in Education and were certainly part of the mood music around the change of government in 1997 when Tony Blair ran on his slogan of “Education, Education, Education”.
Headteachers are now at the end of their tether, with many having to take the unprecedented and unwanted step of writing home to parents to ask for money to help with the running of the school. Cuts to the curriculum and in particular the arts are commonplace, materials right down to the basics of pencils and paper are being rationed, staff numbers are being reduced and class sizes are rising.
Our children and young people deserve the best education possible, not some bargain basement version. Real-terms cuts to schools’ and colleges’ funding must be reversed and our education institutions given the resources they need to provide the high-quality education our children deserve.
During the snap general election, the Conservatives heard it loud and clear that school funding was a priority. We have won some concessions but, with 88 per cent of schools still facing real terms cuts, it is imperative that we continue to seek more money for our schools and colleges.
I can assure the government that we have not gone away and will not rest until our schools are properly funded.
Kevin Courtney is joint general secretary of the National Education Union
The National Education Union will be participating in the School Cuts Lobby of Parliament on the 24th October