There can’t be a school in the land that isn’t finding itself making difficult decisions about how to spend its very limited funds this year – and it doesn’t look like things will be any easier in the years to come. During the most recent of our many elections, it seemed that education funding was actually a key issue that shifted opinions on the doorsteps and that something might change in the aftermath.
Indeed, just last week there was talk of scrapping the 1 per cent pay cap for teachers and other public sector workers, although that idea has already been kicked into touch. Of course, even if this had been offered, there is no indication of any more money coming the way of schools. Perhaps the only hope on the horizon is the potential “fairer funding” arrangement – and even then there are likely to be plenty who will lose out.
Last week, Theresa May added to doubts that any more money would be forthcoming when she spoke in favour of continued austerity at Prime Minister’s Questions. Her point sounded reasonable enough: “It isn’t fair to refuse to take tough decisions and to load debt on our children and our grandchildren.”
What seems to escape the minds of politicians – of all political persuasions – is the fact that the decisions we make about funding now affect the nation’s children and grandchildren now.
There are schools cutting back on music or PE; there are families being asked to fund basic school materials like glue and rulers; there are extracurricular activities being cut. Perhaps you could argue that in times of austerity these things are expendable extras.
Indeed, you might even claim that saving money now will help those children in the future by avoiding “loading debt” on to future generations. The problem is that the link isn’t that simple. Sometimes there is a risk of robbing Peter today only to find out that Paul wants more money tomorrow. You will be familiar with the stories from your own school. The rapidly diminishing funds in schools and local authorities means that education welfare officers are a rare sight. Schools are theoretically held to account for poor attendance, but where is the funding and support for improving it? Those hard-to-reach families who are no longer being reached will be those who struggle to achieve at school and then become dependent on the state for support.
We see the same in social work. School leaders and safeguarding leads will have stories of when overstretched social workers have been unable to attend meetings, or when children in desperate need of greater support have been removed from social workers’ lists. The frugality of today isn’t just the result of “taking tough decisions”; it’s loading debt on our children and grandchildren as we expect future generations to deal with the fallout from the failures of these years.
The trouble is, so many of these stories are “behind the scenes”. Ministers and politicians can claim all they like that they’ve protected schools’ funding but the stories on the ground tell us that it’s not quite that simple. And as tempting as it is to focus on cuts in “back-office” functions, we need to remember – and to remind those making the decisions – that many of those back-office functions are exactly the sort of things that are vital to ensure that the most vulnerable children in our schools don’t become the cause of the debts for our children in the future.
The debts we pass on to future generations are not just about the money left in the Treasury.
Michael Tidd is deputy head at Edgewood Primary School in Nottinghamshire @MichaelT1979