Yesterday, MPs held a debate on the subject of school funding in Westminster Hall. This was triggered by an e-petition calling for an increase in expenditure on schools on the government website. Although I was able to attend this debate, engagements elsewhere prevented me from making the full speech that I had initially intended to give. However, considering the strength of feeling on this matter among both teachers and the general public in my constituency, I feel it is worth setting out my thoughts on this matter in greater detail.
We see the real life consequences of school cuts every day. It has become all too common for schools to close early on Friday afternoons to avoid having to pay teachers extra for the time needed to plan their lessons, or for head teachers to appeal to parents for donations to cover the cost of new textbooks or sports equipment for their children. Alarmingly, all 35 schools in my constituency reported funding shortfalls in 2018/19.
It is clear that our schools are facing some very real problems, but rather than addressing them, the government has so far preferred to deny their existence. Ministers have consistently made misleading claims about the amount of money that the government is spending on schools, for instance by using statistics that take no account of inflation, or by citing funding figures that include all the money that is being spent on all education both privately and publicly (such as fees for universities and private schools) to claim that investment in schools is at record highs. These are blatant falsehoods, and the government has been rebuked no less than four times by the UK Statistics Authority for repeating them.
According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, there has actually been a drop of 8% in school funding over the last 8 years. This has meant that a child living in West Bromwich West is having an average of £321 less spent on their education annually than in 2010. But these troubling headline figures obscure even larger reductions in specific areas. Sixth form education has seen the loss of a quarter of its budget since 2015, and at the same time, there has also been a 55% reduction in local government services.
The inability of councils to access outside services has a knock on effect that places additional pressures on school budgets. When I speak with Head Teachers from my constituency, one issue that comes up more than any other is how they feel increasingly unable to support children with Special Needs and Disabilities. Many of the services on which these pupils previously relied for educational support have been stripped to the bone as a result of severe cuts from central government. Individual schools do all they can to support these students themselves- but they simply do not have the resources to provide the kind of specialist support that these children need. One headteacher explained to me that, to “support these vulnerable children, we have to group them together and/or use the school budget to top up funding and provide the level of support that children need. This put huge strains on the budget-and huge strain on the teachers if the money isn’t found.”
This assessment is supported by polling evidence- a survey of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) found that 94% of schools find it harder to support children with special needs than two years ago. As state schools are increasingly unable to provide for those students with special needs, many parents have transferred their children to privately run schools instead- often at great financial cost to themselves.
This state of affairs cannot continue. When people pay their taxes, they have a right to expect quality public services in return-especially for those who are most vulnerable. Instead, we have a situation where many families who are already struggling with the pressures of austerity and low pay are being compelled to give more so that schools can provide the basics for their children.
Last year, Theresa May claimed that ‘austerity is over’. Any look at the state of our schools would show how wrong that is. When I speak to Head Teachers in Sandwell, virtually none of them are optimistic that the current environment of sustained cuts will come to an end any time soon. The time has come for the government to live up to its rhetoric, and bring forward a significant investment in our schools- starting with the Spring Statement later this month.
If you would like further information about how cuts are effecting your local school, I would recommend visiting https://schoolcuts.org.uk/ , which is an excellent resource for tracking the cuts that have been made to individual schools up and down the country.