Campaign for better education funding gathering momentum

18 Apr

Over the spring term 2019, barring Brexit and the NHS, everything – including education – took a back seat in government business.   However, several bodies used strenuous efforts to get government to keep education in focus – especially the funding of it.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) calculated that total school/academy spending per pupil fell by 8% between 2009/10 to 2017/18.   This included a 55% cut in the allocation made to local authorities to help them discharge their educational responsibilities and another 20% cut to sixth-form funding.  Funding per pupil to primary and secondary schools/academies fell by 4% since 2015.

The six school/academy-based unions claimed that schools and academies face a shortfall of £5.4 billion despite the extra funding that the Chancellor made available for an increase in teachers’ pay and (for the first time) a pupil premium grant for young people from the ages of 16 to 19.

“School budgets are at absolute breaking point,” warned the general secretary of the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) Paul Whiteman. “School leaders have made all the obvious savings. Now, class sizes are rising and the range of subjects schools can offer is shrinking as they desperately try to balance the books.”

The general secretary of the Association of Schools and College Leaders (ASCL), Geoff Barton, added: “Schools across the country have had to make severe cuts and there are more on the way as reserves are drained and deficits increase.

“The reality of budget cuts is that schools have to operate with reduced staffing and this impacts on educational provision, such as less additional support for children and fewer curriculum choices. Schools are in the invidious position of having to decide on the least-worst option of where to make cuts or they will become insolvent.”

Government statisticians were severely criticised by the union pressure group, Schools Cut, after they (the statisticians) were forced to correct a significant blunder in their figures in 2018.  The DfE said the School Cuts analysis was “misleading” but didn’t expand on why. A spokesperson added: “The Secretary of State has made clear that as we approach the next spending review, he will back headteachers to have the resources they need to deliver a world class education.”

However, the School Cuts coalition, which runs a website allowing schools to calculate the impact of funding cuts on their own budgets, isn’t the only organisation to have been criticised over its use of funding statistics.

Last October, United Kingdom Statistics Authority (UKSA) chief, Sir David Norgrove, wrote to the education secretary Damian Hinds, DfE permanent secretary Jonathan Slater and chief statistician Neil McIvor with “significant concerns” about the department’s use of data.

A DfE spokesperson said: “We believe these figures are misleading. While we recognise that schools have faced budgeting challenges, this government has prioritised school funding, while taking difficult decisions in other areas of public spending – protecting the schools’ budget overall for 5-to-16-year-olds in real terms since 2010. School funding in England is at its highest ever level and since 2017 we have given every local authority in England more money for every pupil in every school.”

I        National Governors’ Association leading the charge

In the forefront of the campaign to increase the budgets of schools and academies is the National Governors’ Association.  In May and June 2018, the NGA carried out a survey of governors and trustees.  Altogether, 5,218 responded.  The findings on the parlous state of school/academy finances became obvious.

(i)         Half said that they were unable to balance their income and expenditure with a little under a third drawing on reserves.  The respondents also revealed that within two years their school/academy reserves would run out.

(ii)        In relation to high-needs funding, 74% said that the income was insufficient.

(iii)       Early years provision was under considerable financial pressure.

(iv)       The sixth form curriculum was under huge strain because of inadequate finance.

(v)        Schools and academies have already made significant reductions in provision because of reducing budgets, including cuts to staffing.   The secondary sector has suffered more than the primary.

(vi)       Schools are feeling the impact of cuts to local authority services.

(vii)      Only 20% of respondents thought that funding pressures could be managed without negatively impacting on the quality of education schools and academies provide.

The NGA urged governing boards to write to their MPs and the Chancellor before the nation’s autumn budget is announced on 29 October 2019.  They have asked governors to invite their MPs to see for themselves the impact on children.

  • The NGA has suggested that governors download its template letterto MPs – amending it to suit their needs before posting it on to their MPs.
  • Governors can find their MPs here.
  • After they have written, they should email Fay Holland of the NGA at holland@nga.uk to let her know.

The Fair Funding for All Schools is a national network of parent activists of independent parent-led groups attached to schools and academies in their local area.   It is campaigning for better funding for education.   Parents, governors and trustees can contact the organisation at info@fairfundingforallschools.org.

II       Councillors petition Education Secretary

In April 2019, more than 1,000 councillors in England organised by the F40 group wrote to the Education Secretary, Damian Hinds, urging government to give schools and academies billions of pounds extra in funding.  The letter asked him to end the spending cuts and release more money for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

They wrote, “The funding crisis has become so overwhelming that according to the Education Policy Institute, almost a third of all council-run secondary schools are now in deficit, and eight in 10 academies are in deficit according to last year’s Kreston UK report.

“Many schools are now desperately overwhelmed as more and more students are competing for fewer and fewer resources.  Compounded by biting cuts to local council services, in addition to the teacher recruitment and retention crisis, the current settlement is not tenable.”

Chairman of the f40 group and Conservative councillor in West Devon, James McInnes, said: “It’s clear that elected representatives are unhappy with the government’s handling of school funding and are demanding an increase in budgets, as well as adjustments to the way funding is allocated.”

Headteachers across England also protested about their budgets, saying they had been forced to ask parents for extra cash for basic supplies.

The DfE’s replied: “In the last year, we have also announced an extra £400m of capital funding for schools from the Treasury. Nonetheless, we do recognise the budgeting challenges schools face. That is why the education secretary has been making a strong case for education spending across government ahead of the next spending review.

“We are also aware of the funding pressures faced by local authorities on high needs – that’s why we recently provided the £350m in revenue and capital funding, on top of increases we had already promised.”

III     Parental Contributions

According to an investigation carried out by The Times, state schools and academies were being asked to donate hundreds of pounds annually to cover the salaries of staff, buy textbooks and equipment and repair leaking buildings.

For instance, through parental donations, one school raises £100,000 annually.   The highest (among those that responded) request was for £1,260 a year per family. This was at Rosh Pinah, a Jewish primary school in Edgware, Middlesex.  However, some of this covers the salaries of teachers who teacher Hebrew as a modern language and Jewish Studies.

Sir Thomas Rich’s Grammar School in Gloucester, said it received parental donations totalling £96,000 last year, which it spent on building maintenance and staffing minority subjects. It appealed to alumni as well as current parents to raise £120,000 in 2017/18 and urged those connected with the school to set up regular donations. Donors were invited to target their giving to specific projects including sport, music and science equipment.

Henrietta Barnett, a grammar in north London, said: “All costs above the basics are passed on to parents as voluntary contributions, including all trips, additional activities, even music and drama opportunities. Only essential maintenance is done; school buildings are falling into disrepair. We will have to use our reserves (from parental donations) in order to survive. We ask parents to fund science equipment and are getting parents to buy sixth-form textbooks for the first time.”

Swimming lessons are statutory.  However, The Times discovered that many schools/academies had been asking parents to pay for the lessons and/or the transport costs to and from the pools.  Others had asked children to bring their own stationery, glue sticks, exercise books and boxes of tissues.

Many are depending on parents to help them repair leaking roofs and broken-down heating systems, installing stair-lifts for disabled children and replacing obsolete computer servers.

Several schools/academies are adopting a four-and-a-half-day week. The number is growing.

IV     Situation on the ground

Despite the actions taken by schools and academies across the nation, many cannot rely on parents and carers, who depend on support from the Department for Social Security.  In fact, schools and academies have had to find the wherewithal to provide many parents with financial succour. In England, these educational institutions are having to put together the broken pieces of troubled families in poverty, by giving food and clothes to children, according to Headteachers.  Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Lecturers, said that schools and academies have become the “unofficial fourth emergency service for poor and vulnerable children”.

He remarked: “A decade of austerity has wreaked havoc with the social fabric of the nation and schools have been left to pick up the pieces.” He accused politicians of having a “fixation with Brexit” while failing to address the struggles of impoverished families and the lack of investment in schools.

Sarah Bone, headteacher of Headlands School, in Bridlington, said she saw “too many children with no heating in the home, no food in the cupboards, washing themselves with cold water, walking to school with holes in their shoes and trousers that are ill-fitted”.

Edward Conway, head of St Michael’s Catholic High School in Watford, observed: “Pupil poverty has increased significantly over the past eight years, with us providing food, clothing, equipment and securing funds from charitable organisations to provide essential items such as beds and fridges.”

V     Reflections

One of the main aims of Parent Associations linked to schools and academies is to raise funds for them. Nothing new.  Also, since the provision of state education in this country has had to be free at the point of delivery, it is not unusual for schools/academies to request parents to make voluntary contributions for educational trips and pay for instrumental lessons when they are organised for individual pupils.  But schools and academies are mindful of those children who come from poor backgrounds and find help to provide them with financial support.   More than one school/academy has, for instance, arranged for the children to have free breakfasts at the start of their working days.

What is alarming is that some parents are now being approached to pay for text books, stationery and building repairs and make contributions to offset the cost of staff.   I, personally, am aware that one (religious) voluntary aided school “requested” parents to pay for their children’s education because the cost of staff exceeded the income it was receiving from the local authority. What was even more startling was this was happening eight years ago.  I have moved away from the area and dread to think what parents are being asked to do now.  These are not voluntary parental contributions but rather the creation of a dependency culture.

In its investigations, The Times discovered that 200 schools/academies out of the 700 respondents to its survey revealed that schools/academies sought donations but reduced their services, cutting out mental health support and reducing the number of music lessons.   These institutions also asked parents to pay for swimming lessons – or at least contribute to the cost of transporting pupils to and from swimming pools.

When this is pointed out to the government, the response inevitably is that government has increased the funding of schools and academies by 50% in real terms since 2000. However, that increase occurred under the Labour government from 2000 to 2010 and then was frozen in real terms ever since – because of the international collapse of the financial markets in 2008.  Add to that a cut of 55% in local authority funding and a reduction by 20% of sixth form spending per student.  Schools and academies have been left to hang out to dry.

As mentioned earlier, total spending per pupil fell by 8% since 2009, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. School/academy funding has been frozen, but costs are rising – a double whammy.   Inflation is also up.

But there is some good news. From September 2019, the employer rate for teachers’ pension scheme will increase from 16.48% to 23.6%.   The government has stated that it will provide funding for this rise for maintained schools to March 2020 and for academies through to August 2020.  Whether or not this will extend to the financial year 2020/21 will depend on the government’s spending review which is due on 29 October 2019.

Schools and academies had a decade plenty under Labour but since 2009 have had to cope with shrinking budgets – a decade of famine.  Many have done what they could to improve efficiency. This included doing away with School Crossing Patrols (SCPs) – i.e. the lollipop persons – and not replacing certain staff, such as teaching assistants (TAs) and School Meals Supervisory Assistants (SMSAs). They have had to cope with leaking roofs either by putting up with them or carrying out patchwork and some have even shortened the working week from five to four-and-a-half days.

Secretary of State, Damian Hinds, is doing what he can to bring to bear pressures on his fellow MPs, especially the Chancellor Phillip Hamond.   It is right and proper to boost the NHS budget and extend people lives.  However, the nation’s future depends on the quality of education, so, in a sense, spending on education is not spending, per se, but rather an investment in the future.  However, the government is also mindful of the nation’s debt, that is now running at £1.8 billion and rising. This too will impact on the nation’s future – detrimentally.  Therein lies the government’s dilemma…… and those not having to make painful choices, in more senses than one, are fortunate…….

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