17 March 2017
By Ian Toone, Director of Policy and Research Services
The recent Department for Education (DfE) consultations on a National Funding Formula for schools and High Needs Funding have raised numerous issues about the parlous state of current education funding.
Whilst very few people would want to argue that the status quo should be maintained, attempting to frame a fair funding formula is proving to be very difficult, not least because it is not just a question of allocating a fixed amount of money per child, in order to create a level playing field; there is also the question of determining relative ratios of funding between, for example, primary and secondary pupils or disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged learners.
In the run-up to the last General Election, the Conservative Manifesto contained a promise to protect education funding. In reality, what this turned out to mean was that school funding would be frozen.
Whilst this means there has been no reduction in overall funding, it hides the fact that funding has not kept pace with inflation and has not been increased to cover the additional costs which schools now have to face in terms of higher National Insurance and pension contributions from employers, higher business rates (for some schools), the new apprenticeship levy (which applies to all maintained schools and many academies), incremental pay progression and annual uplift pay rises for staff, including the introduction of the National Living Wage, and increased costs of utilities, other services, resources, maintenance and increases in general living costs.
In reality, education funding has not increased since 2010, and is not set to increase until at least 2020. The National Audit Office recently determined that schools would have to make savings of 8% by 2019-20. Even under the proposed new funding formula, the most that currently lower-funded schools can hope to gain over that time is 7.5%, so they will still fall short, whilst schools which are currently funded above average will have to find even greater savings as their budgets are set to fall by up to 1.5% per year until they are on a par with what the formula would dictate to be their fair share of funding.
Already, many schools are in financial crisis and are having to take radical steps to make savings. Such measures include increasing class sizes, reducing curriculum time, deleting minority subject options at GCSE (and A level), increasing the number of timetabled periods which teachers are required to teach, reducing the school day, making staff redundant (or reducing their hours), cutting back on support services and resources, and even asking parents to commit to making regular donations (for example, £50 per term).
Many of these measures are also resulting in an increased workload for teachers and support staff, at a time when workload is already high and creating unprecedented levels of stress and sickness absence.
If these measures are being taken now, what happens when funding cuts continue to bite even harder over the next few years? If schools are already hanging over a precipice now, some could become insolvent in the very near future.
Any funding changes are likely to exacerbate these difficulties as it is virtually impossible to create a sustainable future when attempting to re-distribute funding at the same time as continuing with real-terms cuts in overall funding.
New funding is needed to cushion the effect of transitional changes and ensure balance and proportionality during what would otherwise be an unacceptably turbulent and chaotic period.