George Osborne sharpens axe for more cuts in DfE

11th September 2015 at 01:00
Spending review could target ITT and free school meals

AS schools open for the first full week of the academic year, it is easy to forget that towards the end of term we will see the results of a hugely important set of negotiations.

In the last week of November, chancellor George Osborne, pictured below, will announce the fruits of his first post-election spending review – plans for the next four years of public-sector investment – and making cuts to the overall education budget is very much on his agenda.

Just where the chancellor’s axe will fall is currently being thrashed out by officials in the Department for Education and the Treasury. But chief among school leaders’ concerns should be the prospect of the department cutting funding for initial teacher training (ITT) in a bid to meet Mr Osborne’s demand for £20 billion in savings across government.

The government has, of course, already committed itself to protecting per-pupil spending for five- to 16-year-olds in cash terms, a figure that will grow as some half a million more students enter the system. So which other areas could be for the chop?

The spending review is a high-stakes poker game played out between two Whitehall departments, but the people who are most affected by the outcome – school staff and their pupils – hold no cards and none of the chips.

According to well-placed sources, very few areas remain for officials to cut, meaning ministers will be forced to look beyond education’s perennial whipping boy, the 16-19 sector, to appease the Treasury.

A former senior civil servant at the DfE told TES that cuts could be made to the £500 million the department spends on ITT – despite the fact that schools are in the grip of a well-documented recruitment crisis.

“That is one area I would be most concerned about,” the source said. “We are heading into a period of teacher shortages, and everyone is rightly anxious about that.

“It’s getting harder to recruit teachers and there will be 500,000 or so more pupils in the system over the coming years. The government has already slashed its teacher advertising budget and if they slash the ITT budget then schools will be in a great deal of difficulty.”

Tim Plumb, joint headteacher at the Woolwich Polytechnic School in south-east London, said the current teacher shortage was the “most difficult time I can remember”. He argued that more money, not less, should be going into ITT (see box, right).

Slim pickings

Despite such objections, the idea that teacher training could be about to receive a very close shave is a view shared by economists, who have been left scratching their heads over just what is left for officials to cut.

Luke Sibieta, programme director at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, said the increase in pupil numbers would mean that the protection of per-pupil spending equated to about 70 per cent of the overall DfE budget.

“That leaves the early years and post-16 budgets,” Mr Sibieta said. “But it will be tough for them to cut early years because they have committed to doubling the number of free childcare hours to 30, and they have said they will increase the rate by which they compensate providers.”

He added: “The 16-19 budget is the most obvious place because that’s the only area they haven’t committed to, but there is not much left to cut. That leaves other, smaller elements of the budget, like initial teacher training.”

Prime minister David Cameron has committed the government to opening 500 new free schools over the next Parliament, giving the department even less room for manoeuvre.

No such thing as a free lunch?

Reports this week suggested that ministers would consider scrapping universal free school meals for infants, which would save £600 million. There have been suggestions that the Conservatives could write off the policy as one introduced by the Liberal Democrats during the coalition, and it has proved problematic for many schools to deliver because of a lack of proper facilities.

Non-departmental agencies, such as the National College for Teaching and Leadership (NCTL), which recently lost its chief executive Charlie Taylor, could be wound down. And one seasoned observer even suggested that Ofsted may be forced to make cutbacks by relying more heavily on data and pulling back on the number of inspections it carries out each year.

Of greatest concern for schools would be any cut to the department’s support for ITT. The lion’s share of teacher training is paid for via student fees, but other areas are directly funded by the DfE. These include the School Direct salaried programme, government grants offered to Teach First and other smaller initiatives such as Troops to Teachers.

Teach First has received government funding for about 10 years, with its most recent accounts for 2014 showing £12.4 million in government grants. In the same year, the charity was also handed £22.9 million by the NCTL as part of a three-year contract to deliver initial teacher development.

‘Major issue’

The Association for School and College Leaders said it shared fears about the possibility of cuts to training, adding that any such proposal must be resisted. “ITT has to be a priority and we have been highlighting this for some time,” said Malcolm Trobe, the ASCL’s deputy general secretary.

“There is a major issue with teacher recruitment, and we not only need to retain those already in the system but bring in more. In simple terms, an increase of 300,000 students would require an extra 10,000 teachers. But we are talking about an extra 400,000 or 500,000 pupils.

“So any reduction in provision of places or stepping down of the costs for institutions that are running those courses is going to cause major problems. There is no easy way of making reductions to when it comes to teacher training.”

The chancellor made the easier cuts in his last spending review. What is clear now is that November’s plan will be the toughest for a generation.

‘Cuts to ITT will cause real problems’

Tim Plumb, pictured, co-headteacher of the Woolwich Polytechnic School in south-east London, warns against cuts to ITT, saying that the quality of teaching matters as much as teacher numbers.

“Any move to reduce funding for ITT would certainly lead to short-term savings, but would cause some real problems in the long term,” Mr Plumb says.

“I would be very concerned if any cuts were made to the salaried route of School Direct. More than 50 per cent of our recruitment comes through School Direct and the salaried route has been great for us. It attracts a different type of person, usually career-changers, who often have more experience.”

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