22 November 2022

Schools have the cash they need – so how should they put it to use in the next two years?


There weren’t many rabbits pulled from the metaphorical hat in last week’s gloomy Autumn Statement – but an extra £2.3bn a year for schools for the next two years was one of them.

Combined with previously announced increases, it means that by September 2024 the core schools budget will have gone up by another £5bn from now, and £9bn from last year, to £58.8bn.

In the middle of a fiscal squeeze, this is pretty generous, albeit politically essential to avoid two years of a noisy and damaging ‘school cuts’ campaign. The Government will now head into the next General Election able to say real-terms per-pupil funding is back at the level it was under Labour in 2010.

Given how generous the Labour years are perceived to have been, it makes it harder to argue schools and children haven’t been prioritised. And it was a 2019 manifesto commitment to do this, so gives the Government another thing it can point to that it has achieved this parliament.

Perhaps most importantly though, getting ahead of things financially means there is an opportunity for the final couple of years of this parliament to be focused on raising standards, rather than have endless arguments about whether there is enough cash to do stuff.

But ministers shouldn’t get too carried away with big new ideas.

There’s not much time left, for a start. Also, schools have been through huge reforms in recent times. They’re still dealing with the impact of Covid too. And whilst there should now be just about enough money in the system overall, it will not necessarily be in the right places, for a variety of reasons. Things are going to be stretched. This means a focus on the fundamentals, even if they’re not big and sexy.

So resist the siren calls to change what kids learn about and how they’re assessed. Leave Ofsted alone. Ignore celebrity driven “schools should teach my pet issue” campaigns. Don’t come up with new performance targets or league tables.

Kids do best when they have great attendance and behaviour, and experience a brilliant curriculum that’s delivered well and leads to worthwhile and respected qualifications and careers. Consistently and quietly the Government has worked with teachers since 2010 to improve all of these things.

If you don’t work in schools you’ve probably never heard about the revamped guidance on suspension and exclusions, or ‘behaviour hubs’, or ‘National Professional Qualifications’, or the Education Endowment Foundation, the National Tutoring Programme, and the Education Inspection Framework. But these and other dry-sounding things are slowly but surely changing education for the better. There’s no need for new initiatives here, just an obsession with effective implementation, to avoid some of the debacles of recent times.

That said, there are some things that could and should be done that can make a big difference quickly, particularly when it comes to how we organise schools and how they collaborate. 

Kids are better off when their school is resilient and supported by something bigger, so the next few years should be about getting as many schools as possible working together in good academy trusts. This enables them to better pool and move around money, expertise, people and so on – and do these things more systematically. It means a bigger bang for every buck, and more resources in the right place, at the right time.

There are already around 8,500 schools working together in ‘multi-academy trusts’ (MATs). The Department for Education (DfE) should nudge the remaining 1,500 standalone academies to join or form MATs, and encourage smaller MATs to merge with others, to enable them to do things even more effectively.

It should also do everything it can to support the Church of England and Catholic churches achieve their stated aims of having all their schools in MATs. This would mean another 4,000 schools and their pupils benefitting. It would also probably enable another 1000 or so council-run schools to join or form MATs, as knowing where local church schools are going will help them figure out who they can join up with in their area.

Having around 15,000 state schools (out of 22,000) in or joining MATs by 2024 would be a pretty huge achievement. It would mean 70% of pupils were educated in institutions benefitting from academy freedoms and expertise. And it would probably be disproportionately in areas that have historically underachieved.

The above will need some cash to make it happen. Struggling schools will need dowries to be taken on by others, and there’s still a cost to stable schools joining or forming MATs. The DfE should help here though, as in the medium and long-run the upside in terms of financial efficiency and pupil outcomes is big. The money for this can probably be found by stopping non-essential programmes and the departmental admin budget.

There is one final thing that should be done over the next couple of years, and it’s probably more important now than ever given the tough times we’ll all be going through: loudly and persistently celebrating how far we’ve come.

It would be easy and understandable to get overwhelmed at how rubbish everything seems at times. The past few years have been angry, divisive, depressing and worrying.

And far from everything in education is great. Too much of the school estate is in a state of disrepair. Staff recruitment is tricky and getting trickier. There are still too many kids not getting a fair deal, especially those dealt a tough hand in life. But, on average, things really have much improved over the last 20 years. Governments of all stripes have put in the money, and schools the hard yards. Education policy has been a massive success!

Before Covid disrupted everything, attendance was hugely up. Behaviour is better and schools are safer and happier places as a result. The curriculum is more rigorous, engaging and worthwhile. Teachers are better trained in the things that really matter.

Given time and space, schools and kids will recover from the impacts of Covid and get even better still. Amidst the economic gloom, they can be a source of hope and pride. Ministers should keep their heads down, focus on delivering and sing from the rooftops about their successes.

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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.