Chancellor must act to avert a new education funding crisis

By Geoff Barton
General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

As Abraham Lincoln taught us, “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present”.

And never, in our lifetimes, has the present felt more stormy.

There was a time, which like everything now feels a lifetime ago, when we spent a lot of time talking, and campaigning, about the funding crisis in education. 

In truth, that issue never went away, but after Boris Johnson became Prime Minister and turned on the spending taps –  some of his colleagues having previously lectured us about there being no magic money tree – the story plummeted down the political agenda. 

Never mind that the additional injection of cash never really made up for the damage of a decade of cuts, or that it left post-16 education in the continuing position of being the poor relation, here was a big number which could be used to deflect the profession’s apparent lack of gratitude.

Now, however, I fear a new education funding crisis is looming. 

Next Wednesday’s spring statement from Chancellor Rishi Sunak may give us a better idea what that will look like, and most importantly, how the government will respond. Certainly, a recent analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, does not make for happy reading. 

The problem, of course, is spiralling inflation with forecasts expecting it to peak at more than 8% - which is a lot higher than the forecasts in October’s spending review on which public spending plans for the next three years were based. 

In short, the numbers no longer add up. 

This is a real problem for the Department for Education – and by extension for schools, colleges, and their staff – because the DfE is of the view that the planned increase to £30,000 teacher starting salaries will be paid for out of this money. 

We have always had our doubts about whether that was ever realistic, and indeed, the DfE proposes some pretty shabby treatment of school leaders and experienced staff by giving them a much lower uplift to their salaries in order to make it vaguely affordable. 

And all of this, of course, compounds a decade of pay erosion, and last year’s ill-conceived pay freeze.

Now, however, with the inflation rate rising, we appear to be destined for the worst of all possible worlds. Many teachers and senior staff will, in reality, see real-terms cuts to salaries. Schools and colleges, faced with other rising costs, will struggle to pay staff wages. 

One of those rising costs is the huge increase in energy prices. We are hearing examples of annual contract values rising from £10,000 to £70,000 and from £65,000 to £200,000. Worryingly, the DfE is already showing familiar signs of its standard response to a funding crisis – which is to say it isn’t happening. 

On energy costs, the government view appears to be that this is a small percentage of school budgets overall. So, that’s alright then. And you can expect to hear them trot out the spending review figure of £4.7 billion extra on core school funding at regular intervals.

In the meantime, of course, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi is putting the finishing touches to a white paper which is expected to set new literacy and numeracy targets, and encourage the growth of multi-academy trusts. Will there be any new resources for any of this? 

After all, it’s hard to bring about system-wide changes without any money. 

To make matters worse, the poor relation that is post-16 education continues to be chronically underfunded, and the long-awaited review of the tangled mess of special educational needs funding has still not been published – two-and-a-half years after it was launched. 

To be fair to the government, a lot of the factors involved in this gloomy situation were beyond its control. It was thrown off course by the pandemic, as any government would have been, and the pressure on inflation is the product of global circumstances.

But what we cannot have is a repeat of the past decade – when the value of wages went backwards, making recruitment increasingly difficult; schools and colleges had to cut budgets and provision; and all of this while the government buried its head in the sand. 

On Wednesday, let’s hope for a sign from the Chancellor that history isn’t about to repeat itself. 

Or to put it another way: let’s hope that the dogmas of the quiet past are seen as inadequate to the stormy present.

Geoff Barton is ASCL General Secretary. 

Posted: 18/03/2022 09:55:40