A shorter version of this article appeared in the Times.
Edward Boyle, Minister for Education in the early Sixties, once received a dressing down from his Chancellor of the Exchequer over his department’s requests for the Budget: they were, he was informed, far too parsimonious – more money needed to be asked for! Boyle, rather taken aback, replied that the money requested was all that was required. Rare, indeed quite possibly unique, as Sir Edward’s example is in the annuls of intra-governmental financial negotiation, it is one Justine Greening, the current Education Secretary, should emulate. Our schools do not need more money.
It will take courage for the Government not to give what amounts to protection money to the union lobby. The School Cuts website, largely led by activists from the National Union of Teachers (now merged into the National Education Union), made local and national headlines during the election campaign. Chris Cook, public policy editor of BBC Newsnight, used Twitter to ask if it was “the most effective, highest cut-through mass campaign by a union in recent years?” In Crewe, one of the Department for Education’s own ministers, Edward Timpson, lost his seat to anti-school cuts campaigner Laura Smith, overturning a 3,000-vote majority.
Why, given that it has caused them such pain, should the government not respond by giving schools more money?
In the first place, because they already have: since the election, Greening has already announced that the government has found an additional £1.3 billion for schools. This money means that, overall across the country, funding will be maintained, in real terms per pupil, over the next two years.
This extra money is designed to support the transition to a new funding system that almost everyone in education, whatever their political colour, has been demanding for years: a National Funding Formula. Instead of the “postcode lottery” of school funding which local councils created by allocating funding to schools in different ways and for different purposes, Westminster will now decide how much money a school should get for educating a child, and how much extra should be given if the child has additional educational needs.
However, despite being advocates for such a system, the National Education Union turned on it. That highly successful School Cuts website? Many of the figures on it were derived from some very creative accounting about the NFF: the unions claimed that 88% of schools would have their budgets cut, which is impossible given that every single one of them is going to get at least a 1% per pupil gain in cash over the next two years. Moreover, the school-age population is rising, and thus so will school budgets as these large cohorts arrive. Contrary to the School Cuts campaign’s doom-mongering about 30,000 teachers disappearing from our children’s classrooms, teacher numbers are forecast to rise by nearly 8,000 by 2020.
But it is not even necessary to get into such technicalities to make the case for no further cash for schools in the Budget. The average UK resident is aged 40; since they left compulsory education in 1994, the amount spent on schools has sky-rocketed. Between 1997 and 2010 primary school spending per pupil increased by 114% in real terms and secondary school spending by 90%. Rather than demanding another round of funding increases, the schools sector should be asking whether that doubling of funding has generated a commensurate improvement in performance, or if much of the money has been side-tracked into bloated management teams and dead-end initiatives.
Policy Exchange recently asked teachers for their thoughts on how to save money in schools. Many of the responses, especially from longer-serving teachers, criticised the creation of new layers of management, each costing more money and often spending less time in the classroom, and many generating more work for other staff. Poorly implemented IT projects and ineffective use of teaching assistants was a common theme too. It is here, on the efficient use of the money they have already been given, that schools need to focus their attention., not simply demanding more cash to avoid making hard choices about how to run a more efficient and effective school.
There are aspects of England’s school system where money is clearly being well spent: the highest performing school at GCSE in 2017 was one of the government’s new free school where 98% of students achieved passing grades in English and Maths; the national average, including schools with far more privileged intakes than many free schools, was 70%. Often, they are able to pay higher salaries to the staff who work to make this success happen by imaginative deployment of back-office staff and working across all the schools in their trusts on curriculum creation and decent assessment. The DfE is doing work to help spread knowledge of such practices across the sector, but more should be done by government and also by the wider schools-led system to ensure each penny in education is spent wisely.
Funding education properly is essential, and it is well funded. The nation also has other priorities – including health, social care, defence. As Britain leaves the EU, reforming our public sector to be efficient and effective has never been more important. We can have world-leading schools without breaking the bank, but not if our school system believes there will always be more money whatever happens. For the good of our schools and our children, the Chancellor must say “no”.