16 November 2022

Hey, minister, don’t leave those schools alone! Now really is the time for a funding boost


Is it just my age or do revivals and comebacks come around quicker these days?

Whether it’s fashion (Y2K! Double-denim!), the arts (reboots! 3D cinema!), economics (austerity!), or politics (Gove, Gibb, Braverman – even Osborne!), it feels as though things are coming back around again sooner than ever. Sometimes even before you realise they’d gone away.

So it is with the School Cuts campaign, which is back to make the case for more cash for schools.

Now, it might be tempting to dismiss this as just another bout of theatrical complaining from a sector forever demanding more, regardless of the fiscal reality. After all, school budgets have literally just received nearly £4bn extra this year – the biggest ever cash increase. 

On top of that, financial reserves for the academies sector jumped by over a quarter to nearly £4bn according to the most recent set of financial accounts, and the average council-run school made a surplus of £160,000. Doesn’t this suggest a sector that’s doing OK in terms of funding?

And anyway, when have the teaching unions ever said that there was enough money? Even in the days of Labour largesse, when spending per pupil more than doubled, the National Union of Teachers took their members out on a strike for higher pay.

Nevertheless, I think the Government – and anyone interested in education – should take the noise around School Cuts seriously, for two major reasons. First, it cut through to voters before, and will do so again. Second, this time round even moderates are echoing its message.

Let’s look at what happened in 2017, when the National Union of Teachers really pushed its School Cuts campaign.

When asked ‘What do you see as the most/other important issues facing Britain today?’, the percentage of people flagging education and schools jumped from 15% to 27%, ranking it as the third most important problem in the country – just in time for the general election in June of that year. 

Some think that the campaign cost Theresa May thousands of votes in marginal seats and played a big part in denying her a majority.

Whether it did or not, the Conservatives were spooked so much that only a month later they announced an extra £1.3bn for the schools budget. Indeed, so desperate were they to find more cash that some of this came via a very rare capital-to-revenue budget swap – something the Treasury rarely allows.

This plus some follow-up Johnsonian generosity led to per pupil funding growing again in real terms. The result? Education declining as a salient issue, falling to 10th place in September just gone.

But now things have changed and even successful groups of schools who previously stayed out of the debate have spoken out about their concerns.

Last month an open letter on the issue was sent to Conservative MPs by 13 education organisations. Amongst the usual suspects one signatory stood out – the super-moderate ‘Confederation of School Trusts’, a membership organisation involving all the leading academy trusts in the country, including those who have been at the vanguard of the Government’s reforms since 2010. This is a Big Deal.

So yes: overall English schools are well funded, and that funding has gone up a decent amount again in the past few years. And, yes, many schools still have ways to make their money go further by joining academy trusts, rationalising non-teaching functions, and ensuring teachers and teaching assistants are as effectively deployed as possible. And most schools have healthy reserves for rainy days. But right now inflation means it’s not raining, but pouring.

Because the reality is that restructuring to save money can’t be done as quickly as is needed to make ends meet. You can’t easily cut staff and merge classes mid-year without huge strains on day-to-day operations. Indeed, the Government actually made things worse by announcing higher-than-expected pay rises for this year really late in the day, just before the summer holidays – after schools had set their budgets and recruited staff.

In addition, the labour market for support staff – teaching assistants, lunch supervisors and so on – has changed beyond all recognition post-Covid. Labour shortages elsewhere have driven up wages, and thousands and thousands of school staff have left for more money and better, more flexible working conditions. The budget needs to catch up with the reality and, in the meantime, nine out of ten schools are forecasting a deficit next year.

Perhaps most worrying is that some of our best run school groups are now saying they’ll struggle to make ends meet and sustain standards. These are the ones that are already super-efficient, and have reinvested the money saved in extra support for pupils and taking on additional struggling schools. In many cases they have achieved incredible things with institutions that had previously languished for decades.

They are also the very people who we need to take on and improve many more schools over the next few years and ensure there is a great place for every child in every part of the country. However, many of them are now putting plans for growth on hold as they can’t afford the financial risk that comes with expansion.

Altogether there are 22,000 state schools employing just under a million people to work with 9 million pupils and their families; that’s a lot of people putting political pressure on Conservative MPs already facing alternative employment come 2024.

It’s not a surprise then that senior MPs, including the last Education Secretary Kit Malthouse, wrote to the Chancellor last week calling for more money.

Ultimately some cash will have to be found to quieten concerns, so the Government might as well get ahead of things now and take some credit for it, instead of being dragged back to the despatch box for a U-turn like in 2017.

It need not need much – perhaps 1.5 or 2% extra – to take the edge off things whilst they restructure their staff and operations. Schools should certainly be told to publish their plans for getting a bigger bang for their buck, to show they have considered every option. This should include joining a multi-academy trust if they haven’t already done so, as we know these are more efficient and also more effective for pupils. The Department for Education should hold people to these plans too. They should be a breathing space, not a bail out.

English schools have come so far in the past decade, thanks to a shift in mindset, the hard work of the sector and, yes, money. Getting them through this squeeze is politically necessary, but also an opportunity to nudge things further in the right direction. A bung of a billion could solve a political problem, keep the schools system afloat – and be rather more popular than bootcut jeans.

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Mark Lehain is Head of Education at the Centre for Policy Studies.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.