The issue of school funding – or lack of it has continued to create local and national headlines continually for the past twelve months. Post General Election, many have questioned whether we are any further forward. Despite warm words of encouragement from a cross-section of MPs, I can confirm that currently (September 2017) my budget has not changed.
Current Financial picture for Cumbria Schools
We constantly hear our government mantra of ‘record levels of school funding.’ It used to be just head teacher who rolled their eyes at this, but parents know the truth in Cumbria too and do not buy into this disingenuous spin. It is true, and everyone accepts that more money is being spent on education, but the reality is that this is due to rising pupil numbers and all additional money is used to cover the costs of additional pupils within the education system.
If it were the case that funding was genuinely increasing, then we would see our budgets rise, however, this is not the case. Currently, each pupil is awarded a minimum amount of funding, before any additional extra funding is allocated (for example special needs funding, deprivation funding, sparsity funding etc). This is set locally and is a national postcode lottery. Funding averages out nationally at £4800 per primary school pupil. In Cumbria, the age-weighted pupil unit of money (AWPU) is significantly less than the national average and has been slowly decreasing over the last five years for our primary schools.
From this table, we can deduce that if a school has static pupil numbers, the school will have a slightly reduced budget over time. It is clear that there will be no room to cope with any increased expenditure.
The National Audit Office, recently produced a guide for MPs to better understand the school system (6th September 2017). The chart below illustrates the real term cuts that schools are facing year on year as acknowledged by the Department for Education.
In the simplest of terms, to provide the exact same level of education year on year, a school would need to increase their expenditure by 3.4% during 2016-17 with additional increases year on year rising to 8.7% during 2019-20. These cuts add to the equivalent of £3 billion across our school-based system.
The government has said, that schools can find these efficiency savings, partly through staff restructure (£1.7 billion) and better purchasing of goods (£1.3 billion). However, the Government’s auditors have been particularly damning regarding this claim. The Public Accounts Committee (2017) informed Ministers quite clearly that the, ‘Department for Education does not seem to understand the pressures that schools are already under.’
The report concludes:
Schools have already been making savings in a number of ways, but the Department [for Education] considers they can save more, such as through better energy deals. However, staff account for three-quarters of schools’ spending, and savings here will be harder to achieve without detrimental effects on the quality of education and educational outcomes.
The chairperson’s recommendation to the DfE opens with, ‘Pupils’ futures are at risk if the Department for Education fails to act on the warnings in our report.’ School leaders do not accept that this volume of savings can be made without compromising the education outcomes and neither does the Public Accounts Committee.
What impact will this have on Cumbrian schools?
Cumbria has a higher proportion of schools currently running a deficit budget. Therefore, if we are already starting from a position with no surplus or money reserves, then we have to make cuts in some form to balance the books.
The school budget pressures are present and significant: the education of our current pupils is being damaged by lack of funding and policy choices from our government. Ministers and the department have been warned consistently by a variety of their own auditing bodies, yet despite this, our budgets remain the same.
£1.3 billion announcement
A recent government announcement states that further funding has been introduced overall to schools totaling £1.3 billion. Please don’t get carried away! All educational stakeholders were pleased with this notional step in the right direction, with some ministers saying additional new funding to be introduced in 2018. But – as there always is – we must note that this is not additional money just a redistribution6 of existing funding, by cutting money to the Free-School policy and reducing building capital spending.
Furthermore, this redistribution of funding may not reach the classroom. This is due to the fact that all current funding decisions made are controlled by a small representation of education stakeholders (Schools Forum), and it is their decision how to allocate funding across the County. We already have experiences of how this is not fair within Cumbria. One example is linked to schools that are located in a remote area – this is known as sparsity factor. Government guidelines indicate that schools should receive between £1- £100,000 for sparcity. Given the rural nature of our County, you would be forgiven for thinking we would follow this principle; unfortunately we don’t. Payments are set and capped at £20,000. Furthermore, Cumbria’s definition of sparsity is significantly different from the national definition, making it harder for our most rural schools to access additional and vital funding.
In regards to the recent £1.3 billion announcement, it is clear this funding is to be introduced over a two-year period. Therefore, it will be 2020 before it has been fully delivered to our school system. It also falls £1.7 billion short of the cuts to schools currently face by 2019 as indicated by the National Audit Office figures.
Overview of the current situation
In summary of the current financial picture remains quite bleak. We have declining budgets; increased costs that are not regulated by schools; no longterm planning due to an uncertain financial future; and finally, a starting point of one of the worst areas for current levels of school-based deficits.
Impact on the current generation of school pupils
We know that this issue is biting hard in Cumbria. With head teachers, teachers, governors and parents speaking out with both anger, passion and discontent. We have evidence of staff redundancies, subjects being cut limiting the educational choices, strain and impacting on the teacher and leaders well-being, significantly increased number of exclusions of our most vulnerable pupils in Cumbria, Parent’s being asked to provide resources to keep classrooms functioning. It is too early to see the impact on pupil academic performance and no evidence as yet on increased mental health pressures for our pupils.
This blog only discusses part of the significant problem of underfunding – we have not even touched on the £6.7 billion investment needed today to bring our current school buildings up to a safe and satisfactory standard for our pupils. Nor have we touched on the impact underfunding has on staff workload and staffing recruitment and retention issues.
How can we make a difference?
We need to keep sharing this issue, and never be silent. Schools and parents must unite and let the government know this is unacceptable. We need to get the chancellor to agree to additional funding to go into schools now and continue to go into our schools. We can all add to pressure this by writing to our MPs and lobbying them to add pressure for a change in policy.
Should schools be a burden on the treasury? Some would argue that the economy now is the most important thing and that there isn’t enough money for schools. However, what we invest today, our society and economy will be rewarded with in the future.