People must be very confused at the moment about the issue of school funding.
On the one hand, the government is saying that there is a record level of funding for education, which has been protected from austerity cuts. On the other hand, the news is full of stories which make it obvious that there is a crisis in education funding.
If we examine the government’s claims, then we have to acknowledge that it is factually true that education has had protection and that there is more money being spent than ever before.
Education budgets have not been cut in the way that other services have and over the past eight years we have seen ‘stand still’ budgets until the recent injection of funds that has enabled the government to assert that the funding is at a record level. So why is there a crisis?
The first reason is simply the impact of eight years of standstill budgets. We may be grateful that our budgets haven’t been cut in cash terms but they certainly have been cut in real terms, perhaps by something of the order of 30 per cent across that period. Whilst our budgets have been standing still many of the things that schools need to spend money on have continued to rise in cost.
To compound this, a number of decisions, especially in relation to national insurance, pensions and pay have imposed significant additional costs on schools. This doesn’t mean that these decisions were wrong but, when changes are not funded by the government, it does mean that they have a big impact on the budget of every school.
Finally, we have to go back to that protection that education has had from austerity cuts. The reason schools have felt grateful that it wasn’t worse for us is that it has been worse for many of our partners, who have seen their budgets cut.
The services provided by these partners, including Sheffield City Council (who have had 50 per cent of their budget cut), have dramatically reduced or disappeared. The impact of this on school budgets is that they now need to fund a number of activities that previously cost less or were free to access.
Related to this we also need to recognise that the demand upon schools has also continued to rise. Difficult times for communities increases the demand upon schools, as the level and range of support needs for children and young people increase alongside those of their families.
There is a lesson for education to learn from our health colleagues here. Health has been much more effective at making their case for more funding by clearly demonstrating the gap between rising demands and costs and their budgets. Schools are in exactly the same position and, like hospitals, need more funding now.
In the case of schools, we are now several years into this process. Efficiencies were made some time ago and we have had a series of real terms budget cuts that have trimmed provision significantly in most schools. The reason for the degree of concern right now is that the only places left to go in order to make further reductions are places that school leaders don’t want to contemplate.
No wonder the morale of school leaders is falling when faced with overseeing the dismantling of provision they have dedicated their professional lives to developing. No surprise that communities are worried about the impact of cuts on the life chances of their children and young people.
In Sheffield we have the added dimension that our share of the funding is unfair.
It cannot be right that an average sized primary school in Sheffield would receive £260,000 more (£822,000 more for an average sized secondary) if its pupils were funded at the rate they are in Manchester.
There is, as you might expect, a lot of work going on to try to better understand why the new funding formula isn’t delivering on this promise. It is becoming clear that the issue for Sheffield might not be the formula itself but rather the factors that are applied to it in order to maintain stability in the system.
The impact of a gains cap, a funding floor, area-cost adjustments and the like effectively slows the rate at which Sheffield’s funding increases to the level that it should be.
These factors may seem technical but at the moment the difference between what we would get for every child under a fair national funding formula and what we actually get seems to be at least £155 per pupil, which is more than £12m per year across the city (more if we also take account of the shortfall in high needs funding).
If it simply takes too many years for the changes needed to be implemented then this is unfair to Sheffield’s children in schools now, who will pay the price for the government’s need to maintain stability.
Sheffield’s education community should feel very proud of the collaborative way that it is approaching this challenge, when the opportunities for division are so strong. It has been very heartening to see all types of schools, the city council, trade unions, the local press and our members of parliament all speaking with one voice on this issue.
The government needs to find additional funding for education and it needs to use some of that additional funding to target areas which are not receiving a fair share currently.