‘We need a long-term funding plan for schools’

Schools are desperate for funding stability – and the spending review is the chance to push for it, says Angela Donkin

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Until 2015, school funding was relatively well protected compared with other areas of public spending. And today, the government continues to assure us that school spending is at a high level.

And yet, one of the most frequently cited figures across the commentary on school funding comes from the Institute for Fiscal Studies. In its 2018 annual report on education spending in England, it says that school spending has fallen by 8 per cent in real terms between 2009-10 and 2017-18.

So what is the real picture and how do we ensure that the spending review delivers for education?

The question of whether or not there is enough money needs to be driven by a pragmatic approach. What do we want our schools to deliver? What are the most effective ways of delivering a good education and optimising outcomes for children? And how much does that cost?

The national funding formula sets out a calculation based largely on pupil numbers and their level of need. So, with that model the initial funding envelope is crucial.

Is it high enough to provide schools with sufficient income to deliver a broad and balanced curriculum, effective teaching and to reduce attainment gaps, while attracting new teachers and retaining the current workforce?

A fair deal on school funding?

Does the government do this kind of calculation to inform the spending review? If not, it should – taking the best evidence from evaluations of teaching practice, and bearing in mind factors such as teacher supply.

Simply applying a percentage increase or decrease from one spending review to another and comparing amounts over time is not sufficient, because the costs that schools have to bear change. For example, there are a number of recent factors currently linked to increased costs for schools:

  • An increase in employer National Insurance Contributions (NICs) since April 2016 of 3.4 per cent.
  • Increased employer pension contributions. The exact size of this effect is yet to be confirmed, but contributions could rise from 16.48 per cent in 2015 to approximately 23 per cent by 2020.
  • An ageing building stock requiring some schools to divert budget to capital spending.
  • The 2018 teacher pay award.
  • The requirement for all students to continue in education or training until (at least) their 18th birthday.
  • The introduction of Education and Health Care Plans (EHCPs) for pupils with special needs or disabilities.
  • Up to 55 per cent cuts to local authority services between 2009-10 and 2017-18.
     

To go back to the original question, with an ever-changing set of cost pressures, it’s difficult to tell whether there is enough money going into schools in England. It would be useful for the government to set out what it wants schools to deliver and what costs it is covering. This would ensure more confidence that schools have sufficient funding to deliver a good education and pay for qualified staff.

It seems particularly important right now, when the Association of School and College Leaders has attempted to look at how much funding is needed, and has argued that budgets are approximately £5.7 billion short.

There have been pockets of additional funding announced over the last year or so. Who can forget the chancellor’s ‘little extras’ from the Autumn Budget? But these are unpredictable and sporadic, leaving schools in a reactive position.

The government should provide education with a longer-term funding settlement. The education secretary should take the opportunity of the forthcoming spending review to make a robust case to the Treasury for a 10-year plan to deliver appropriate funding to schools.

This would provide school leaders with greater confidence to plan ahead for their school, with sufficient funding to deliver a world-class education for our children – the fundamental building block of a healthy, prosperous country. The current piecemeal approach to education funding isn’t sustainable for schools and doesn’t appear to be benefiting anyone – least of all the children and young people it is designed to serve.

Angela Donkin is the chief social scientist at the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER). Tomorrow, she will be speaking on school funding at this year’s Schools and Academies Show

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