New PM must tackle school funding crisis, leading Tory ministers warn

The warnings come as the two Tory leadership contenders have faced criticism for speaking in favour of grammar schools while being bare on solutions to the problems schools currently face.

Leading Conservative ministers warned this week that the next prime minister must help schools tackle the pressures they are under as costs continue to soar.

Amid mounting inflation, and energy costs in excess of 200% for many schools, school leaders have warned of larger class sizes, redundancies, and cuts to the curriculum, without additional funding.

Education ‘double hit’

Justine Greening, who was the education secretary when Theresa May was prime minister, said schools were facing an “education double hit,” following the disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Education has been badly disrupted by Covid and now schools’ budgets are being drastically eaten away by inflation, meaning there’s less to invest in young people’s futures,” Greening said.

Former education secretary Kenneth Baker, who held the position in the late 1980s, said that without government intervention, schools are likely to go into the red.

“We’re heading into a really ghastly two-year period and it’s going to require remarkable leadership to come out of this smiling,” he said.

The warnings come as the two Tory leadership contenders have faced criticism for speaking in favour of grammar schools while being bare on solutions to the problems schools currently face.

Tory austerity

The challenges schools are facing follow more than a decade of Conservative government-imposed austerity cuts and underfunding of education.

When David Cameron and George Osborne introduced a budget of austerity in 2010, schools were meant to be protected. However, the opposite happened, with figures from 2019 showing that education spending had been slashed by more than £7bn since 2011, with schoolchildren and adult learners “paying the price for austerity.”

Analysis by the House of Commons Library in 2019 found that real terms spending on schools and colleges had slumped from £95.5bn in 2011/12 to £87.8bn in 2018, a total fall of £7.7bn.

Teachers paying for school resources

At the same time four in five teachers were found to be paying for school resources with their own money, while around three in four headteachers said they had relied on parents to prop up school budgets.

Schools and colleges in England have suffered the worse fall in spending since the 1970s. A report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) in 2019 found that adult education, further education and skills spending on young people have been hardest hit by austerity since 2010. Additionally, spending on classroom-based adult education and apprenticeships was down by more than a third since 2009-10, the IFS research into education spending found.

Closure of state school swimming pools

In 2020, reports surfaced that nearly one in eight state school swimming pools have been lost since the Tories came into power.  At the time, 6% of swimming pools publicly owned by state schools had been closed because of austerity, fuelling concerns that swimming may become a ‘privileged’ sport.

Labour MP Stephanie Peacock had described the closures as a “stark illustration the impact years of cuts have had on children.”

“Pupils in state schools are now losing out on basic ­opportunities. Public pools are vital community spaces that help children keep fit and healthy. The loss of these is just the latest impact of austerity.

“We cannot allow activities like swimming to become the preserve of a privileged few,” said Peacock.

In August this year, the IFS warned that schools in England are facing a looming funding crisis, with spending per pupil in 2024 – 25 expected to be 3% lower than in 2010.

As the Guardian reports, after a decade of austerity cuts, ministers pledged to restore per pupil funding to 2010 level by end of the current parliament. However, as the IFS says, the government is no longer on track to meet its objective because of the cost pressures on schools.

According to IFS research, for the forthcoming academic year, the increased costs schools are facing are “just about affordable” because of a £4bn rise in school budgets this year. However, the IFS warns that, going forward, the government’s spending plans are insufficient and real-terms cuts with follow.

Julia Harnden, a funding specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “It is a very poor reflection on the government’s priorities that it will have presided over a 15-year decline in school funding by the end of this parliament.

“While it may argue that there are inflationary pressures beyond its control, the fact is that it is the government itself which has proposed a teachers’ pay award for September without providing any additional funding for schools to afford these costs, and it has also consistently ignored our repeated warnings about the impact of soaring energy costs.”

Andy Pickard, former head of education at Manchester Metropolitan University, told LFF how the funding crisis facing schools in the UK has worsened under Conservative governments.

“I have been involved in schools long enough to remember the last funding crisis under John Major’s government in the 1990s when capital expenditure on schools was put on hold. As a consequence, the fabric of schools became badly neglected – everywhere you went there seemed to be pails set out to catch the rainwater coming through the rooves. Class sizes also increased to 35 or even 40 per class.

“Blair’s government is much criticised with justification, but school buildings were restored and Blair managed to keep his promise that classes would have a maximum of 30 children.

“The current situation is far, far worse than 30 years ago following a decade of austerity. It is not just the fabric of schools which is deteriorating but the essence of education itself. Class sizes have climbed steadily since 2010; staff development budgets have been cut; and current levels of inflation have brought home the extent to which teacher pay, especially among those all important middle levels of school management, has fallen behind what teachers could earn elsewhere.

“It’s the smaller things though that really bring home the depth of the crisis. In the last few days, I heard of a parent whose young child had just been identified has having quite severe special needs. She was told that there would be no place in a special school or additional provision because the resources simply were not available. She would have to do her best at home to provide support.

“We hear a lot about the crisis in the NHS but it is possible that the educational crisis will be more destructive of the social fabric in the longer term.”

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

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