Schools face unprecedented cuts over the next few years. In the Autumn Statement, George Osborne announced that education funding would be frozen despite a significant increase in student numbers. In addition, he announced the introduction of a national funding formula from 2017.
Schools have never faced cuts of anything like this size before. Education spending has only been cut twice before between 1982 and 1985 by 4%, and between 1994 and 1996 by 3% (1). Osborne intends to cut per pupil funding by 7.5% (2) between now and 2020. The standard government response to concerns about the size of the cuts is that this is doom-mongering and that cuts can be made without hurting front line services, just like in the last Parliament. Whether or not you believe the last five years of cuts were painless, this is not true of education. In the last Parliament, spending on pupils aged between 5 and 16 actually increased by 3% in real terms. There were some very big cuts to education such as the cancelling of the school rebuilding programme, but day-to-day spending on pupils did rise by a small amount. The government cut funding for sixth form students by 10% and this put a significant strain on secondary school budgets. The planned cuts to schools are both unprecedented and a dramatic change in government policy.
The introduction of a national funding formula has been hailed by the f40 campaign as a solution for many, but it is unlikely any pupil will see spending on their education increase in real terms. There will be losers and even bigger losers. The areas where the f40 campaign want to make the biggest cuts reads like an index of deprivation: Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Southwark, Lambeth, Newham and big cities like Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Nottingham. These areas face cuts of between 15 and 20 percent or up to £1,000 per pupil. Incredibly the f40 campaign is not ashamed of this and their publications declare that the impact of the changes they propose will see “[a] significant redistribution from inner London to the Shire Counties in particular”. Even so, children in the shires will still lose out.
I have estimated the combined effect of the freezing school budgets and introducing a national funding formula on per pupil funding by local authority in England, you can see the figures at http://bit.ly/1U43Gvo
. These figures are conservative and do not cover the full extent of the cuts. They do not include the scrapping of the Education Support Grant, which will take £100,000 a year on average from every academy. Also the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) estimate of schools’ inflation does not include the increase in pension and national insurance contributions, which adds 3.7% to the wage bill. Further the IFS have based their estimate on school staff’s pay rises being limited to 1% a year; however, the Office for Budget Responsibility (3) thinks this is unrealistic given that private sector pay is now rising at 3.4% a year. So these figures are conservative.
When George Osborne announced this enormous round of cuts he suggested that schools could protect their budgets by accepting more students. It is an easy thing to say, but it is not an option for primary schools. There is (thank goodness) a legal class size limit of 30 for five to seven year olds, so primary schools cannot squeeze in a few more kids to make up their budget shortfall. Realistically primaries can cut several things – additional support with English and maths, teaching assistants, before and after school provision, and luxuries like music teaching and school trips. As with so much else this government does, this will hurt our most disadvantaged students hardest. Research commissioned by the Sutton Trust (4), that looks at the attainment gap between the most deprived and the most advantaged schools, shows that deprived pupils who grow up in a deprived community face a double disadvantage – because they have fewer chances in life and the disadvantage of growing up in a deprived community. For schools in deprived areas it is particularly important to provide catch up teaching, quiet study spaces after school and school trips, because if the school does not provide them then no one else will.
For secondary schools, there is more scope to squeeze in extra students, but this is far from an ideal solution. The government are cutting the money for school buildings even further and the vast majority of what is left is earmarked for opening 500 more free schools. Schools that try to follow Mr Osborne’s advice will be forced into installing prefab classrooms in the playground rather than build proper school buildings. They will then have to redeploy their support teachers to taking whole classes. The school as an institution may end up with the same amount of money and the teachers still keep their jobs, but the test of any education policy is what it does to the quality of the education provided to our students and the government badly fail that test. I cannot imagine many parents thinking that it would be a good idea for their child’s school to teach extra students in inadequate classrooms with little support.
It seems that the Conservatives intend to repeat the damage they did to education in the 1980s and 1990s but twice as fast. If so, they should remember that John Major’s government ended with a parental campaign, Fight Against Cuts in Education, and Tony Blair promising that his priority in office would be education, education and education. Parents, teachers, governors and the wider community need to come together to oppose these awful cuts.
1. Education spending in the UK www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/SN01078.pdf
2. School Funding Reform http://www.ifs.org.uk/uploads/publications/budgets/Budgets%202015/Autumn...
3. Fiscal supplementary table 2.34 Economic and fiscal outlook supplementary fiscal tables – November 2015 http://budgetresponsibility.org.uk/economic-fiscal-outlook-november-2015/