'Why education is not on the general election agenda'

John Tomsett

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John Tomsett general election

Remember 1997? In his latest book Alistair Campbell recalls that back then education was [New Labour’s] number one priority. Those were the days, eh? None of the main political parties seems to be talking too much about education this time around.

Remember October 2010? That month is memorable for me for George Osborne’s Comprehensive Spending Review where he announced cuts to the state sector of £81 billion. The implication for us was a real terms cut of £700,000 in funding over four years. As Jim Royle would say, Ring-fenced my a**e. 

Should we have done nothing at that time, by 2012-13 we would have had a deficit of £1,082,607. Instead, at the end of 2013 we had a £236,524 surplus. Instead of survive in austere times, we chose to thrive in austere times. Over the last four and a half years, amongst many other things, this is what we did:

  • I asked every single one of our teachers to increase his or her teaching time by an hour a week, which they all did without a murmur of protest;
  • Cut departmental capitation by 7% p.a;
  • Cut the number of TAs by 2 FTE;
  • Cut the number of administration staff by 2 FTE;
  • Cut the number of Technicians by 1 FTE;
  • Cut the number of teachers by 5 FTE;
  • Made it clear to the caretakers that they had to complete buildings maintenance jobs in-house in order to save their own salaries, which they have done;
  • Saved £16,000 p.a. on payroll and Human Resources services;
  • Saved £30,000 p.a. on cleaning services;
  • Raised £10,000 p.a. on our Community Sports services;
  • Grew Friends of Huntington School, York which has raised £3,000 p.a.


And over that time we endured a demographic dip which saw our student numbers fall from 1,526 to 1,434. But due to the diligence of everyone who makes Huntington School what it is, our results have improved dramatically during those austere years. We havethrived, not just survived. A local commentator said that Huntington has, Worked magic with their budget.

And now in April 2015, we have just calculated that our 2014-15 carry-forward is in the region of a £240,000 surplus. But that is where the magic looks like ending. Lord Nash announced at the Independent Academies Association’s autumn conference that: "School leaders are going to have…to cut their cloth to drive efficiencies…schools will increasingly have to do more with the same money…Given the state of the public finances we have inherited, this government has done pretty well to protect the schools budget, but I’m afraid that whichever party wins the next election there will be further cuts in the public sector."

Irrespective of who wins the General Election, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has predicted a cut in schools spending of between 7% and 12%, with the latter the most likely figure. Over the next four years schools are going to lose £1 in every £8 we currently spend. And the cuts we have made over the last four years mean we are not quite sure how we are going to continue to thrive.

There may be some London schools which don’t know how to spend their huge surpluses, but every head I have spoken to recently has little idea how to balance the budget over the next few years. I work in an affluent city but York is ranked 148th out of 150 Local Authorities for education spending. In 2013-14 we received £4,659 per student whilst the national median for secondary schools with KS4 is £5,904. It is hard to balance the budget now, especially when your recurrent capital grant was cut by 82% four years ago (from £160,000 pa to £28,000 pa) and you need to ring-fence old money as Pupil Premium funding.

Thursday 30 April is the date of the final BBC Question Time before the general election when the three main political leaders, Cameron, Miliband and Clegg will answer questions from a live TV audience in Leeds. If my application to be in that audience this Thursday is successful, I want to ask each one of them about school funding. I don’t want to hear about all the money that has been spent on free schools and academy conversions which has inflated education spending, because, on the ground, I know much better than them the current state of school funding; rather, I want to know how on earth, over the next five years, they think my headteacher colleagues across the country and I will be able to run our schools on the budget levels their manifestos are pledging.

Or are they not talking about education because the funding scenario for our schools is so bleak? If so, students, parents, teachers, heads and governors need to know.

John Tomsett is head of Huntington School in York. This opinion first appeared on his This Much I Know ... blog

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