The £1.3bn in extra revenue funding for schools announced by Education Secretary Justine Greening this week should be welcomed, but heads are justifiably bittersweet about a move that raises more questions than it answers.
The end of term has always been a time of mixed emotions for schools. but in recent years, celebrations have been soured by the departure of staff made redundant by desperate headteachers faced with huge real-terms cuts to their budgets.
The extra cash, which follows a huge backlash from voters over cuts during the election campaign and pressure from Tories embarrassed on the doorstep, is long overdue. But for many schools, the damage of years of rising cost pressures and stagnant funding has already been done.
At Uplands Community College in East Sussex, headteacher Liam Collins has had to make three members of staff redundant this year, at a cost of more than £70,000 to the school.What would have happened if the government’s pledge to guarantee every secondary school £4,800 per pupil had come earlier? Would he have faced the same tough decision? “I would not have had to make anyone redundant,” says Collins.
Under the government’s new funding plans, Uplands will have an additional £500,000 in its budget, equivalent to £1,200 per Key Stage 3 pupil. But this won’t happen until at least 2018, and Uplands, like many other schools across England, is already on its knees.
Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, fears the funding comes too late to reverse cuts to staffing or curriculum that school leaders “will have already taken for 2017-18”.
He also says the amount of additional cash handed over to schools is “too little”.
“Yesterday’s announcement of £1.3bn only amounts to £400m next year and £800m the year after that,” he says. “The money will not begin to reach schools until April 2018 at the earliest and while we welcome any additional funding for schools, it’s well below the £2bn a year extra that schools need to address real-terms cuts.”
According to the IFS, even with the additional cash from Greening et al, schools will still have seen their budgets cut by 4.6 per cent in real terms between 2015-16 and 2019-20. The latest cash injection does nothing to right the wrongs done to schools over the last few years, and gives leaders no indication of what to expect beyond 2020.
As Vic Goddard, principal of Passmores Academy and star of the hit TV show Educating Essex, tweeted yesterday:
Looking fwd to telling our board that 3% of the 8% funding cuts have now been taken away. What to do about the other 5%?
— Vic Goddard (@vicgoddard) July 18, 2017
So, as Tory MPs dutifully retweet a bright blue banner proclaiming that the party is “giving young people the best start in life” with its £1.3bn handout, heads face massive uncertainty as they prepare to say goodbye to pupils ahead of the summer holiday.
The announcement was surreptitiously squeezed, last-minute, into the parliamentary calendar on Monday, and a cynic might wonder if officials wanted the element of surprise, to catch off-guard the heads, teachers, parents and school funding campaigners who became so troublesome on the doorstep during the election.
However, even if the decision to make the announcement a few days before the end of term was made in good faith, the timing is still dreadful.
Imagine agonising over a decision to make valued members of staff redundant, only to find out that there’s a possibility that if you’d held out a little longer, done things a bit differently, they might have been able to stay. Imagine having to say goodbye to teachers, support workers, administrative staff, with a nagging thought in the back of your mind that it didn’t need to be this way.
Budgets for 2017-18 were set a long time ago now, but I don’t know a single head who wouldn’t do everything in their power to avoid redundancies, and an early warning that more money was on its way could have made for a very different set of circumstances this year.
Under the proposed funding changes announced yesterday, schools will be guaranteed increases in their budgets of 0.5 per cent in cash terms in 2018-19 and 2019-20, while some will gain more in an effort to address historic regional variations in spending.
Greening said yesterday that the £1.3 billion of extra money, coupled with planned rises set out in the last comprehensive spending review in 2015, mean that the overall schools budget will rise by £2.6bn by 2019-20.
However, there is still uncertainty about how schools will be funded beyond 2020, when the government is due to carry out another review.
As Education Policy Institute head of research Natalie Perera writes in Schools Week, the lack of commitment beyond the next two years is a “hindrance to long-term resource and staff planning. Without the ability to plan ahead, schools may struggle to make the improvements in efficiency that ministers are often so keen to promote.”
That’s the problem with this piecemeal peace offering to schools. Not only is it too little, far too late, but it tells schools nothing about their future, creating further uncertainty at a time when heads have their backs to the wall.