Schools brace for worst as Osborne does figures

15th October 2010 at 01:00
There seems little doubt that the most severe financial blow for generations is on its way

Next Wednesday will be judgment day for the public sector.

For everyone, from the prime minister down to policy-makers, from heads and their staff to Joe Public in the street, October 20 will dictate people's standard of life for the next five years.

The comprehensive spending review (CSR) will lay out the Government's spending plans for the next five years, or the full term of the Coalition. Early indications suggest it is likely to be very painful for all involved.

The aim of the review is to make pound;83 billion in savings to put the country back in the black - the equivalent of shutting every school in England for more than a year.

Announcing his emergency Budget back in June, chancellor George Osborne stated that all Government departments would be expected to make between 25 and 40 per cent savings over the next five years.

Thankfully, the Treasury said it would look favourably on the Department for Education. Mr Osborne has said he recognises that schools are a special case, and that there are "particular pressures on the education system".

Education Secretary Michael Gove has already scrapped the vast Building Schools for the Future programme - at one stage projected to cost pound;55 billion in total - while axing a number of quangos, including the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency, the General Teaching Council for England and education technology agency Becta.

But despite this, Mr Gove will be expected to agree cuts of 10-25 per cent with his Cabinet colleague ahead of the CSR.

Heads and school governing bodies around the country will be praying the figure is nowhere near the upper end of that scale. And there will be some cause for optimism after the Tories' welfare announcements during their party conference in Birmingham last week indicating that cuts had been found in the benefits bill.

And speaking as far back as June, Mr Osborne indicated that the DfE would be spared from taking the full 25 per cent cut if other departments are capable of taking greater punishment.

"If, over the coming couple of months, we can find further savings in the welfare budget, then we can bring that 25 per cent number down," he told the Today programme.

But even for the most optimistic of observers, the Government's decision to protect spending on the NHS and international development will mean that schools will be dealt a blow not felt since the Luftwaffe's bombing raids over England.

Speaking to The TES last month, Tony Travers, an expert on local government funding at the London School of Economics, said schools would feel as though "the sky has fallen in" once the numbers are made clear on Wednesday.

"The cuts will be the heaviest since the late 1970s, but as these spending squeezes will likely last for the next five years or more, they will be unlike anything experienced since the war," he said.

"Schools really will feel as though the sky has fallen in. I think it says a lot about a society that puts health ahead of education."

Whereas schools have been used to annual cash increases of 4 or 5 per cent, they will now be staring at increases of less than 1 per cent.

Local authorities are already looking at 10-15 per cent cuts to their funding which, Mr Travers said, would result in schools being played off against other council services.

"A local authority will constantly have to compare and choose between what it should spend its money on.

It will be forced to choose between a pupil sitting in a classroom or spending more money on the public library," he said.

"The pupil wins every time, but the cuts will mean the council repeatedly having to pitch these things against one another in order to make a judgment call."

In this playing off of local authority services, John Howson, managing director of TSL sister company Education Data Surveys and president of the Liberal Democrat Education Association, believes that if the cuts are as bad as forecast, town halls will simply have to pull funding for any services they are not statutorily obliged to provide.

"The worst case will be if the dedicated schools budget doesn't cover schools' costs," he said. "This is the first serious recession since budgets were devolved to schools, so we can't quite be sure what will happen.

"But, historically, schools have gone about meeting such savings by making their textbooks last a couple of years longer. You don't do any minor maintenance work, such as touching-up paint jobs and you cut the number of cleaning hours.

If the worst does occur next week, Professor Howson said, provision for under-fives that is not protected will simply "collapse".

"Local authorities will pull any money for under-fives unless it is covered by grants like Sure Start, because it is non-statutory. Nurseries, those that are part-funded by local authorities, will just collapse. People employed in that sector will then be made redundant once the money dries up."

Professor Howson believes schools will look to parents to alleviate costs wherever possible. Science experiments in labs will be cut, field trips will be axed and schools with falling rolls, particularly those in the North, will be forced to make redundancies.

Even the light at the end of the tunnel is not so bright, as once the country recovers from the cuts, schools will have a fight on their hands to attract graduates into the profession.

"Growth always returns to the private sector first, and so the issue will arise on how we manage teacher recruitment," Professor Howson said. "We will have to make teaching an attractive profession, but there will be strong competition from the private sector, particularly from the finance and engineering industries, when it comes to maths and science graduates.

"Schools will argue that teaching needs these graduates for the next generation. But if the Government introduces a cap on immigration, employers will be forced to turn to home-grown workers to an even greater degree."

Amid all this, the CSR could give schools a glimmer of hope in the shape of the pupil premium, additional funding for schools with pupils on free school meals, which will come from outside the schools budget.

The exact amount attached to each pupil will be announced as part of the review, and the deal struck between the Coalition pledged a "significant amount".

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) says it expects the funding to be greater in the primary sector.

Luke Sibieta, IFS senior research economist, said: "The Lib Dems before the election made it clear that they wanted to replace all deprivation funding with the pupil premium, and there has been little sign of deviating from that.

"They previously said they would make the premium more generous in the primary sector, and the noises that have come from the Coalition so far are the same. Primary school pupils receive lower funding on average, so this would represent a greater increase for them."

It is likely that only Mr Osborne and his closest allies know what is in the CSR. But with teachers' pay frozen for two years from next September, pension pots calculated according to the consumer price index (CPI) rather than the faster-growing RPI, with the retirement age raised, teacher training likely to be squeezed and continuing professional development dropped, every teacher, head and governor in the land should brace themselves.

10-15% - Level of cuts local authorities are working to

THE OUTCOME - No such thing as good news .


  • A 10 per cent cut to the DfE
  • A "significant" amount for the pupil premium is costed at pound;2.5 billion
  • The Department recognises the need to fund core school activities
  • Capital expenditure is made available to some schools missing out on BSF

      • A 25 per cent cut to the DfE
      • Collapse of under-five provision
      • Nursery redundancies
      • School transport for faith schools scrapped
      • Frontline redundancies for schools with falling rolls, particularly those in affluent areas of the North
      • School cleaning hours cut
      • Science experiments and field trips axed
      • Instruction to make textbooks last longer.
        • Original headline: Schools braced for the worst as Osborne does his final calculations

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today