A vision of huge classes, scarce staff and even closures

9th October 2015 at 00:00
Could Tim Brighouse’s warning of a 25% funding cut come true?

THE TERM “school funding” has duller connotations than almost any other in education. Yet it could soon be propelled to the top of public debate, especially if predictions by respected educationalist Sir Tim Brighouse come to fruition.

Sir Tim (left), the former London schools commissioner, claimed in a column for TES last week that some secondaries could face cuts of 25 per cent over the next five years.

That “translates into getting rid of 50 staff in a secondary school with 200, or 20 in a primary school with 80”, he wrote.

How bad could it get? If Sir Tim’s estimates are correct, this would surely cause a national outcry: schools would be forced to cut back dramatically on subject options, make huge increases in class sizes or in some cases even shut down.

So could it happen? Sir Tim’s calculations are based on a double whammy for schools’ budgets. The first hit will come from an estimated 12 per cent cost pressure caused by the impact of rising costs such as pay, pensions and National Insurance contributions on a flat cash budget, as estimated by the politically neutral Institute for Fiscal Studies.

The second hit will be brought on by the introduction of a “national fair funding formula”, in which money will be redistributed from higher-funded schools in London to areas outside the capital where per-pupil budgets have, for years, been much lower. For the worst-affected schools, Sir Tim wrote, this means an extra cut of about 13 per cent.

And that could even be underestimating the problem: figures from the F40 group, which campaigns for a new school funding formula on behalf of the worst-funded areas, suggest that schools in Hackney would lose up to 16 per cent of their per-pupil funding under the group’s proposals. Schools in Southwark would lose about 13 per cent; those in Greenwich would lose 12.5 per cent.

‘Severe problem for heads’

Sir Tim’s numbers are “not far out”, says Dame Joan McVittie, the recently retired headteacher of Woodside School in Haringey, North London, and a former president of the Association of School and College Leaders.

“I think some schools, in real terms, will see a 20 per cent cut,” she says. “It’s going to cause a severe problem for heads in and around London. The big issue is that a lot of heads don’t know how to deal with staffing reductions, because they’ve never had to do it.”

But others are less alarmed. One schools expert tells TES that Sir Tim’s estimate was “somewhat pessimistic”. “I don’t think the Department for Education would use the F40 group’s figures – they would find a way that was more moderate,” he adds.

The expert says the uncertainty over the future funding formula explains the lack of public discussion of school funding. “People are holding fire,” he says. “It’s difficult to campaign against 20 per cent funding cuts when no one has announced 20 per cent cuts. If the cuts are significant, there could be a lot of noise.”

However, he adds that cuts on a smaller scale, of around 12 per cent overall, would still have major implications. “Most inner London schools tend to over-staff key subjects such as English and maths because they have been well-funded, so they can afford to have smaller class sizes in those subjects. That would be unwound in those scenarios.”

Ian Bauckham, executive headteacher of Bennett Memorial Diocesan School in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, says schools would make savings by reducing students’ subject options at key stage 4. “It’s much cheaper to run a GCSE history class of 30 pupils than, say, a music class with far fewer pupils,” he says.

But he warns that the schools likely to lose the most money from the new formula – those in areas of high deprivation, particularly in London – would be the worst-placed to do this. “If you’ve got a mobile school population with high numbers of pupils speaking English as an additional language, running a totally academic, no-options curriculum would be very tough indeed,” Mr Bauckham says. “You do need diversity in the curriculum.”

Schools fighting for money

The trouble is that, with almost no chance of the Treasury finding extra funds for education, the severe funding shortfalls in the lowest-funded parts of the country are having to be met by areas that have become accustomed to healthy budgets – and this is pitting schools against each other.

There are already signs of this. “Some schools in London, particularly those serving challenging areas, have been able to accumulate substantial rollovers,” Mr Bauckham says.

“That indicates that a lower level of funding is sustainable. As a head in Kent, an area that historically has been poorly funded, I’ve long looked across the border enviously at the funding they get in Bromley, which is 20 minutes up the road.”

What’s in store for schools?

The respected Institute for Fiscal Studies says schools could face cuts of 12 per cent between 2014-15 and 2019-20. This is because their per-pupil cash budgets will be effectively frozen, but costs will rise: there will be increases in schools’ pension and National Insurance contributions and in salaries.

On top of this, schools’ budgets could be shaken up because the government has pledged to overhaul the national school funding formula. Estimates from the F40 group, which campaigns on behalf of the lowest-funded areas, show that schools in some London boroughs would lose up to 16 per cent of their per-pupil budgets if the government uses the approach the group has drawn up.

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