Sing a happy tune and school funding woes will vanish, says former free school head

Janet Downs's picture

The unions are crying wolf over school funding for English schools.  That’s the opinion of Mark Lehain, former head of Bedford Free School and now director of the Parents and Teachers for Excellence, writing in the Telegraph.  

Lehain’s article coincided with Tuesday’s march against school funding cuts.  He tries to undermine the protest by paraphrasing the words of school minister Nick Gibb to Schools Week:  the unions are ‘being selective with the stats they use…’

£1.3bn of additional funding has been found following the School Cuts campaign, Lehain writes, implying School Cuts should now shut up.  But his argument is undermined by a prominent link to another Telegraph article: ‘Free schools face budget raid to help fund £1.3bn education bailout’.  

Not new funding then – just plundering another pot.

Funding for education has grown between 1997 and 2015, Lehain writes.  And he’s correct – mostly.  His choice of 1997 as a starter date is significant.  If he’d started the comparison in 1994/95 it would have shown funding for education fell year-on-year in the dying years of the Conservative government.  The boost to school funding began in 1997 after Labour took power and rose to a high of £99bn in 2010/11.  Since 2011/12 to 2014/15, education funding has dropped to £85.2bn (download Institute of Fiscal Studies data here). This fall was despite the number of pupils in schools rising.

History appears to be repeating itself – funding for education falls when Tories are in power.

The IFS data, however, includes other education funding not just day-to-day school spending.  Is there still a fall when day-to-day spending alone is considered?  The IFS  wrote before the last election that the outgoing government’s commitment to freezing school spending in cash-terms up to 2019/20 implied ‘a real-terms cut in spending per pupil of about 6.5% between 2015/16 and 2019/20’.

Since then the Department for Education has robbed the free school budget to provide £1.3bn extra funding.  The Telegraph wrote (27 September 2017): 

‘The independent Institute for Fiscal Studies has confirmed that our additional investment means that across the country the total schools budget will now be maintained in real terms per pupil through to 2019-20.’

Leave aside the odd suggestion that the Telegraph’s providing the extra funding, maintaining the schools budget means keeping it at the same level, neither increasing nor decreasing.  In other words, per-pupil funding would be frozen.

What happens after 2019/20 is unknown.

Mark Lehain brushes this aside.  The unions must start singing a happy tune, he writes.  ‘Always look on the bright side of life,’ perhaps, as school funding continues to be inadequate.  Or the band playing on as the Titanic sinks.


Speaking to Schools Week, schools minister Nick Gibb said ‘schools’ funding is driven by pupil numbers and, as pupil numbers rise, the amount of money schools receive will also increase.’   This is disingenuous.  This extra funding doesn’t represent more money per pupil.  It means the Government will fund extra pupils at the same low level.  


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