Two of the most expensive words in British education history? by Andy Heron

Two of the most expensive words in British education history? By Andy Heron

Unless you have been living in another dimension, you will not have escaped the furore of anger directed towards the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Right Honourable Philip Hammond MP, in recent weeks after uttering those now immortal words within his 27th October budget speech.  One that was thankfully much shorter than the 1852 one lasting a record 4hrs 45 minute. In it he commented:

“But I recognise that school budgets often do not stretch to that extra bit of kit that would make such a difference.

So today I am announcing a £400m in-year bonus to help our schools buy the little extras they need…

…a one-off capital payment directly to schools…

… averaging £10,000 per primary school and £50,000 per Secondary School”

The backlash from all directions of education of this token gesture was unrivalled in modern times.  Social media was a cauldron of vitriol at the sheer audacity of the Chancellor to think that schools up and down the country just needed a bit of extra pocket money to purchase a few items to make up for what schools up and down the land just hadn’t got in loose change lurking at the back of the school settee.

If back pedalling was an Olympic sport, then the Right Honourable gentlemen may well have smashed the world record and crossed the line with the silver medallist nowhere to be seen.  You see, while at £200,000,000 a pop, that expensive faux pas has further exacerbated the rift between school leaders and politicians in the grave situation of how schools are currently funded, or not as the case may be.

The Government will argue long into the night that “schools have greater funding than ever before.” Theresa May, 6th September 2018.

"We are spending record amounts on our school funding. We are the third highest spender on education in the OECD." Nick Gibb, 28th September 2018.

However, much of these statements and the figures mentioned are being questioned by well-established organisations, such as the OECD, for their accuracy in light of the figures including the money spent by university students on tuition fees and parents on private school fees.

Indeed, the definition of the source of the statement by the Right Honourable Mr Gibb from the OECD website was:

Definition of Education spending

Education spending covers expenditure on schools, universities and other public and private educational institutions. Spending includes instruction and ancillary services for students and families provided through educational institutions. OECD (2018), Education spending (indicator). doi: 10.1787/ca274bac-en (Accessed on 02 November 2018)

I could go on, but you get my drift. The Government is not comparing apples with apples, nor whiteboards with whiteboards. It’s more like whiteboards with slate & chalk, it is that far apart!

The school budgets of today are haemorrhaging with the sheer weight of what needs to be paid from it.  The Institute of Fiscal Studies has the actual reduction in school spending, per pupil (in England) adjusted after inflation, since 2010 decreasing by 8%.

The recent march by headteachers, was primarily about the reduction in funding to schools – just consider the reduction of 8% per pupil in a school of 1,000 pupils and the pressure to deliver higher standards with less money.

Add into the mix increased costs to employers through national insurance and pension contributions and you begin to see why the “little extras” line was met with so much outrage. Even when the much-welcomed pay increases to teaching and support staff are announced, it is always a concern as to how these are going to be met by the existing, rapidly depleting school budget.  Promised funding to meet these rises is always received with a healthy dose of scepticism.

Of equal severity to this financial hardship, in my eyes, is the stress and deflation that is then placed on remaining staff both in ensuring that the school continues to meet it aims and objectives, and trying to ensure that this continues with the reduced workforce.

Unrealistic expectations placed on staff are not only a recipe for potential short-term absence problems, due to stress and anxiety, but also create a longer-term issue of reputational damage because standards cannot be maintained.  Not only on student achievement but on the actual fabric of the school estate.

The currently running BBC2 programme “School” aired its first episode this week and the effects of the reduction in whole school funding above and beyond any “little extra’s” since 2010, was all too plain to see.  Staff had been made redundant and the impact of this was shown as a downturn in the response and support to students with pastoral issues.  Neglect of keeping the school estate functional, due to insufficient funds to maintain buildings to a sufficiently acceptable level, was also clear for all to see. 

Going back to the politest rally ever by the headteachers standing up to the Government for fairer school funding, this is the future of our schools we are talking about.  The fabric, the ethos and the spirit and delivery of lifelong learning for the nation’s young people is being undervalued and under financed.

In summary, while the Right Honourable Philip Hammond will point to next year's spending review, which may or may not yield an upturn in funding for education in future years, the impact and his present of a “little extra” to buy that much needed kit was only a sticking plaster for the vast majority of schools. A much more generous uplift in funding is required to reverse the current state of the nation's schools.