I was recently asked why I hadn’t written anything on the school funding crisis, given that it is the biggest emergency currently facing Britain’s schools. I guess there are two reasons: the first is that even resolving that immediate emergency isn’t going to save our schools unless we solve the other problems too (most obviously the teacher exodus and an assessment system that simply doesn’t work.) The second is that it is almost too obvious to write about: it should go without saying that, if we want good schools for our children, we have to pay for them. I fear the time to avert crisis has passed so, rather than howling at the moon, I want to consider how best we should look to rebuild from here in the future.
Schools face a real terms cut in budgets of 8% on average by 2019-20. That may not sound like a lot until you understand that schools tend to spend upward of 80% of their budget on staffing alone. Unless you expect a school to cut its budget on absolutely everything else by 40%, this means staff redundancies at a time when many schools already feel understaffed in the face of some of the challenges they face. Cuts to other local authority services, especially in areas such as Childrens Services and family support, mean that schools are having to take on a wider range of functions to support their most vulnerable families. At the same time staff costs are increasing and added burdens like the apprenticeship levy are eating away even further at the budget.
Most schools cannot address these sorts of cuts without significantly reducing the strength of provision to their learners. The “low-hanging fruits” of efficiency savings are already picked. The government’s response is simply to deny that school’s budgets are being cut at all and point to their spending on wasteful vanity projects such as selective free schools as evidence that they are investing properly in education. By the time there is any realistic of a political sea change, schools will be standing in a landscape transformed. With such tremendous pressures on their budgets and the communities they serve, there is simply no way our schools can compete with more successful countries in the OECD’s international rankings in the way the government hoped. When the next set of PISA tables are published in 2019 it will be clear that the agenda begun by Gove and continued by Theresa May’s government has failed and that schools are deteriorating. At this point campaigners and opponents of government policy must be ready to take advantage of public demand for a new approach and new investment. The old world has fallen. We must now turn our attention to how we can best rebuild our education system when the flood waters start to subside.
Something we must acknowledge is that when education was more generously-funded a decade ago, money wasn’t always well-spent. ICT systems were often installed in schools without appropriate training or technical support needed for them to make a sustained impact. Additional adults were sometimes appointed as “solutions” to difficult pupils or groups and, while some of these individuals were worth their weight in gold, the contribution of others was sometimes more questionable. The government frequently published detailed, prescriptive documents that did little for schools than increase their administrative burden and which must have made someone a small fortune in printing costs. Teacher training in England and Wales was atrocious. The content of the PGCE course was concerned more with learning acronyms and the names of strategy documents than with pedagogy. Teachers with vast gaps in their subject knowledge or even a lack of proficient English were sometimes waved through with little additional support. In-service training was mostly composed of isolated courses completely disconnected from teachers’ classroom practice. There is so much that can cause disagreement in education: to what extent should children be segregated by ability? What should be the balance struck between different subjects? How much priority should be given to language and STEM subjects over sport, practical skills and creative arts? But there is surely one point on which almost everyone can agree: good education needs good teachers. In future, that’s where the investment needs to be.
In Finland, that beacon of effective education in Europe, all teachers have the equivalent of a masters qualification. They pursue tailored programmes of professional development throughout their careers so they feel able to teach all the necessary aspects of a rich, varied curriculum- including using those expensive ICT systems in a way that will actually benefit learners. Finnish teachers are well-remunerated for their work and as a consequence their best and brightest young adults are often motivated to pursue a career in teaching.
This is an ideal we should all be able to get behind. This government isn’t spending enough on education and a rough couple of years lie ahead for our schools. The last Labour government spent more generously but not always on the right priorities. When the pendulum swings again and the debate on education moves into its next stage, let’s make sure the arguments we’re making are smarter than ever before. Public support for more investment in schools should be easily obtained, but we must ensure we argue for investment in the right priorities, and this time build a system that can’t be torn down so easily.