The recent announcement of a new Schools Funding Formula (SFF) has resulted in much controversy at both Westminster and in schools throughout the country. The government has, in the face of strong criticism from the National Union of Teachers, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, Labour and the Liberal Democrats to name but a few, continued to state that “funding is at record levels”; predicted to be £40 billion in 2016-2017. They insist that the new formula is fairer, as it directs more money to areas most in need, and which in terms of education have been historically underfunded.
But this has not ended the criticism. As quoted by the BBC, of 1,200 members polled before the recent ATL conference, 93% said they were “pessimistic” about education funding. The ATL’s general secretary Mary Bousted has stated, “Unless the government finds more money for schools and fast, today’s school children will have severely limited choices at school”. The government appears unperturbed however, with a spokeswoman for the Department of Education saying the government had “protected the core schools budget in real terms since 2010”.
The real problem with the new SFF is revealed when it is placed within a wider context, alongside other costs, cuts and ‘efficiencies’ schools are being expected to make. The examination of but only one of the supposed winners of the new formula demonstrates its inadequacy.
The City of Plymouth is supposed to be one of the great ‘winners’ from the new SFF, receiving a core budget increase of around 5.7%. However, this increase is not all it appears. Plymouth local authority has historically been underfunded, receiving roughly 6% less than comparable local authorities. Therefore, it is immediately clear that the supposed increase of 5.7% will not go far enough to bring Plymouth into line with its compatriots. This is compounded by the increases which will be received by other comparable authorities, which will move them even further ahead of Plymouth and continue to leave its schools comparatively underfunded.
However, the real problem for many schools and Plymouth local authority area schools in particular comes from the additional expenditure which they are forced to make. These are threefold: 1- An increase in national insurance contributions 2- The introduction of the apprenticeship levy 3- The expected 1% rise in public sector pay. When combined together, the resulting impact on the supposed 5.7% increase to the core budget in Plymouth is in reality nowhere near that sum and a funding crisis exists within Plymouth’s schools.
The extent of the problem caused by the combination of the new SFF and rising costs elsewhere for Plymouth schools was made clear to me during an interview with an informed source currently dealing closely with the fallout of these events. My source, who wishes to remain anonymous, explained that the changes were already having a “catastrophic” effect on the city’s schools stating that the changes to both the SFF and schooling as a whole were “a potential death knell to public education”. One school, described to me as working with some of the most “difficult young people” and a “great deal of social deprivation” is reportedly facing 16 redundancies among both its teaching and support staff, with another 6 teaching staff leaving for reasons such as early retirement. The result here will be that 22 posts are vacated and not refilled, resulting in a decline in subject choice, a fall in the quality of teaching and crucially, a drastic tailing-off in support for some of the most disadvantaged young people in the city. More worryingly however, my source revealed that one of the city’s two colleges was facing up to 32 redundancies among support staff in August of this year. In this case, the cuts will effectively wipe out the entire ‘special needs’ support team, leaving only two posts, both of which look set to be 2 year fixed-term positions. Reportedly, the college also intends to stop taking on apprentices after the current academic year, shutting off a massive area of student choice. In both cases, the changes are hitting the most vulnerable hardest, and limiting choice for young people. All this is occurring in spite of the core 5.7% budget increase, and my contact stated that they “expected more” redundancies in the coming months.
The government statistics are an inverted false economy; they appear to lead to funding increases but in fact, simply mask the financial strains being placed upon the system by cuts and additional costs elsewhere. These reforms strike at the very core of a free, liberal and meritocratic education system and act only to enhance existing problems and divisions. It forces head teachers into Hobson’s choices about whether they will sack teachers and ancillary staff or cut choice, in terms of courses offered, from their school’s curriculum; but in all reality, one naturally leads to the other anyway. These changes are dangerous, and must be fought ‘tooth and nail’ to prevent the decay of our world-renowned education system; for however well intentioned, they will undoubtedly create as many losers as winners.
But, these changes are not only hammering state and local authority funded comprehensive schools; traditional state and local authority grammar schools are also feeling the heat. Of the three grammar schools in Plymouth (Plymouth High School of Girls, Devonport High School for Boys and Devonport High School for Girls), two are to make cuts in either their teaching or support staff in the near future. A contact within the local authority said “my greatest fear is that, when the government says ‘grammar schools’, they mean selective, private and elitist institutions”. He explained that “what is being created is a two-tiered education system, where the new ‘free’ grammars educate only the best, brightest and likely wealthiest children, and the state schools fail the rest”. He summed up by saying that the creation of “sink schools” is becoming a distinctive possibility.
A society which cannot bring itself to fund education properly, provide choice and a meritocratic system is indeed, a very sick society.