“We are spending record amounts on our school funding. We are the third highest spender on education in the OECD”
Nick Gibb on Radio 4’s Today programme.
After 2000 headteachers marched on Downing Street hoping to provoke the public in to outrage about school funding, Nick Gibb scored a tremendous own goal by claiming not only record levels of school funding but an almost world-beating commitment to investment in education. Both are true, but like all statistics are only correct in a very specific sense. What these claims omit is… well, every other piece of information you need to understand whether the current cohorts of pupils in Britain’s schools are getting a fair deal. To understand whether the ‘record levels of funding’ are sufficient, you at least need to know how many pupils’ education this needs to cover (more) and how much it now costs to deliver this education (lots more). To take a view on whether our rank position for spending in relation to other countries is something to be proud of, you must firstly know what type of spending this includes. For most people, boasting about how much students have to spend on university tuition fees and how much parents fork out on private education is rather perverse, and doesn’t really tell us anything about the debate on state-school funding. Unfortunately, the figures quoted include both these amounts. The use of these statistics in the context of the school funding debate is either an indication of ineptitude or, worse, a deliberate attempt to deceive the public.
The fact is that school funding has fallen in real-terms by around 8% since 2010, as confirmed by the IFS. This is an inconvenient truth for politicians, but perhaps not surprising given the stated aim of controlling national debt through fiscal restraint. Whether or not you agree with austerity, you don’t need to be an economist to know that it was inevitable that spending on education would fall. It is also true that education spending in the first decade of this century increased significantly. Times were good. If you take the long view, spending on schools today doesn’t look too bad in comparison to when the Labour Government took power in 1997. It is easy to see why the present Government (and no doubt many members of the public) think that headteachers should put up and shut up. Perhaps if the Government were straight-talking and honest about the cuts in funding, and offered support to deal with this, they would.
But this whole debate misses the point. The question isn’t ‘Are schools getting more or less than before?’ or ‘Are we spending more or less than other countries?’. The question we should be asking is…
…is it enough?
And if you care about whether schools are getting ‘enough’ funding, the question you might ask next is ‘Enough for what?’.
The problem seems to me to be that we haven’t defined exactly what it is that we want schools to provide. We have this vague notion of what schools do, but as a public service it is fairly undefined. Given the amount of money being spent (soon to be £4,800 minimum for every secondary school pupil, for example), we are surprisingly laid-back about defining what we get for this money. You cannot imagine a private transaction in which we are as willing to accept such an undefined notion of what we will get in exchange for our cash. Without a clear definition of state-school education provision, we cannot cost this service and therefore do not really know how much money is needed. As a result, when we can no longer afford to spend as much on schools we are not clear what it is we will no longer do. Equally, we cannot make rational decisions about what else schools could provide and whether we are willing to fund this appropriately.
There are further problems with a lack of clarity over what schools actually do. Over time, schools experience mission creep as society places increasing burdens on the education system to attempt to resolve social ills and address emerging challenges, such as those caused by social media. Without clarity over the role of the school, what they should and should not provide, schools will feel pressure to stretch themselves to meet these expectations, and in doing so put increasing pressure on resources. This tendency is exacerbated by the competitive market in which parents shop-around for their child’s school. In one respect, competition can be beneficial in encouraging schools to improve the quality of core education, but quality is hard for parents to see, whilst the breadth of opportunities available can easily be quantified and so schools must do more, rather than do better. Mission creep takes its toll, not only in terms of pressure on a school’s finite resources but in the pressure it places on staff who are asked to deliver much more than their contract requires, often much more than is sustainable for them personally.
To illustrate how ill-defined our state-education system is, consider the following:
- Counselling services: Is it the role of the education system to employ counselors to support students with emotional difficulties, or should this be provided through the healthcare system? Increasingly, GPs in our region of the country will push back students seeking help and advise them to ask the school for counselling support. Many schools provide such services in an attempt to support young people, but should they? Is this part of our state-education service?
- Child care: The last Labour government encouraged (and funded) schools to provide out-of-hours child-care to help working families balance the demands of work and family life. Whilst the funding no longer exists, the expectation of parents for schools (particularly primary schools) to supervise pupils and provide activities before and after school remains. Is child-care part of our state-education service?
- After school clubs: Schools in the UK have traditionally provided free extra-curricular activities, such as sport and drama. However, some schools are beginning to ask for voluntary contributions, or even charge, for participation. Do we want such activities to be provided by all schools free-of-charge? If so, how are these funded? At present, teachers give their time freely but are not obliged to under school teachers pay and conditions. Neither do schools receive any additional funding to promote or encourage this extended offer. What level of extra-curricular activities can we expect from our schools?
- Societal problems: Schools have absorbed the tidal-wave of problems arising from social media, and addressing relationship problems and bullying is, we would all agree, part of what we expect schools to do. However, most of the issues arise outside of school. To what extent do we expect schools to arbitrate and resolve these problems? Similarly, do we want schools to address problems arising between families in the community, support parents in bringing up their kids and working with the police to address anti-social behaviour in the community? The Pupil Premium strategy has targeted resources (although it was never ‘new money’) for schools to close achievement gaps, but increasingly schools are also expected to be at the forefront of efforts to address the problems of inequality in society, whether it be the rise in knife-crime, legal highs or mental health. As social services fall away, schools are forced to fill the gaps in support for the vulnerable. What role do we want our state-education system to play in addressing societies ills?
There are numerous other examples of mission creep and ill-defined boundaries for schools. If we were to achieve clarity over what we do and do not want schools to do, and cost this properly, we would begin to answer the questions over the sufficiency of school funding.
So what fuels the anger of headteachers over school funding? The disingenuous spin by government is infuriating, but we are used to less-than-honest politicians. What keeps headteachers awake at night is, firstly, the sense that they cannot deliver what is expected of them; that expectations are rising whilst resources are diminishing. And being at the front line, we are acutely aware of the problems that this failure will cause in the future. The core service will still be delivered. Schools will continue to schedule about 25 hours of lessons each week and group students in (increasingly large) classes to be taught the curriculum. The curriculum may narrow a little, teachers’ workloads will increase as they teach more and mark more, but schools will make it work and maintain the pretense with parents that all is well; and maybe most parents and students won’t notice much difference. What gets cut is those things that matter most to the minority; Teaching Assistants, counselors, pastoral support, family support… enough time in the day to just sit and listen to what is on a young person’s mind. We know who these children are and we know what happens when vulnerable children don’t get the support they need. Headteachers will see the damage at the individual level and foresee the damage at societal level.
I think that what most headteachers believe in strongly is equality. Whilst we cannot change the inequality which exists in society, we can at least ensure that every child attending our schools gets the same chance to become well-educated. This opportunity should be afforded to all, no matter their background, social class, parental income, year of birth or home address. This is why headteachers fought for equality of funding no matter which part of the country you live in, which to their credit the present Government has finally addressed through the new funding formula. But we still see so much inequality. We see inequality between funding between state and private schools. We see inequality in access to good schools as a result of where families can afford to live. Most recently, we see inequality between generations caused by the boom and bust of public spending patterns. How, we ask, can it be right that a generation of children can be #WorthLess than the generation that was educated one decade earlier?
This takes us back to the distracting argument over whether spending on schools is higher or lower than it has ever been. It is not the level but the fluctuations that are the problem. It is not helpful that the current government are cutting spending in real-terms, and neither was it helpful that the previous Labour government accelerated spending so rapidly. Boom and bust is bad for education. Both are wasteful. When spending rose significantly, the extra money went in to additional services and pay levels which were unsustainable, and we are now living with the difficulty of bringing those expectations back down. Now per-pupil spending is falling, we have the pain and expense of reduced provision, redundancy and pay constraint.
What is required is stability over time. Expenditure on education should not track GDP, but rather the underlying growth in the economy. This means that governments have to fund a deficit during difficult economic times and reap the surplus when the economy picks up. The role of government is to buffer the education system from the cyclical fluctuations of the economy so that each generation receives the educational entitlement society expects. This is not only socially equitable, it is also economically efficient. In practice, some adjustments would need to be made year-on-year to account for cost pressures, including the necessary salary increases for teachers to ensure an adequate supply of labour in to the profession. However, the underlying growth in education spending should be steady and predictable. International comparisons might be helpful in ensuring a comparable proportion of GDP to other developed nations is invested, but, as Nick Gibb has shown, we must be cautious about such data and take account of the differences in education systems, purpose and role of schools in each country.
Unfortunately, on the day of the headteachers’ march I was fighting a more immediate funding threat being waged by our local authority. Had I been there and written the letter delivered to Number 11, I would have asked for the following:
- Define exactly what it is you want our state-funded schools to do
- Cost this provision properly and make sure the funding you provide is enough
- Create stability and predictability over future funding; think of this as investment, not cost
- Stop fiddling and meddling in education
- If you want the remit of schools to increase, provide the funding to enable this
- Be honest and frank with schools and the public over what is affordable
- Support headteachers by getting behind them rather than standing in their way
How much better it would be if Nick Gibb could truthfully say;
“Investment in every child’s education is increasing steadily and predictably, in real-terms, so that schools receive sufficient funding to deliver on the clear remit we have given them. They have our full support in doing so.”