Is the Autumn Statement a new dawn for education?

By Geoff Barton
General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

Besides the welcome news in yesterday’s Autumn Statement of an extra £4.6 billion for schools over the next two years, the Chancellor also made what felt like an important statement about the value of education.

He said: “Being pro-education is being pro-growth. But providing our children with a good education is not just an economic mission, it’s a moral mission.”

After the nonsense of the short-lived Truss era about a growth agenda underpinned by nothing more substantial than hot air – and several years in which education has often felt low down on the priority list – this seems like a significant step forward.

It’s important not to get too carried away of course. It’s one phrase, in one statement, on one day. But the accompanying increase in funding was a demonstration that it was more than mere rhetoric.

And if the government – and subsequent governments of whatever complexion – embed that thinking in their policies and spending plans, then the education sector, the country, and, most importantly, children, will be in a much better place.

Because any serious plan for long-term and sustainable economic growth must have education as its heart in order to ensure we have a workforce with the skills and knowledge to make sure the UK is globally competitive.

And education is, of course, a moral mission too with the power to improve the lives of vulnerable and disadvantaged children, and plays a key role in giving fresh hope to deprived communities. As Rishi Sunak recently said, it is the closest thing we have to a silver bullet.

Amidst this hopeful optimism, there are, of course, some caveats.

Yesterday’s funding boost will not solve all the pressures facing our schools. It won’t pay the bills for this year’s unfunded pay awards, or deal with the teacher recruitment and retention crisis, and energy bills could soar again once the energy price guarantee ends in March. This is why we are still going ahead with our consultative ballot on industrial action – to allow our members to have their say taking all these factors into account.

And there was no mention yesterday of any more money whatsoever for colleges or early years despite their vital importance to so many children and young people.

There is also a yawning chasm between the money available for special needs provision and the support those children actually require. And there are thousands of children living in poverty who currently miss out on free school meals because of the eligibility rules.

But the extra billions are a great deal better than where we were prior to the Autumn Statement, and in a bleak economic landscape, it is an indication that education may – at last – be a spending priority. 

It is also a vindication of what you – the leaders of our schools and colleges – have been saying. The letters that you, your governors and families have written to MPs to make the case for education. The evidence that you have helped us compile in the form of surveys and feedback that we have been able to present to the government. And your support for the  joint work we’ve done with a range of other associations, including the NAHT and NEU, over the past few frantic weeks. All of this has been instrumental.

And credit too to the Education Secretary and her team of ministers and officials at the Department for Education who have clearly gone into bat with the Treasury during the notoriously difficult process of a government spending round. 

None of this should be underestimated.

Many school and college leaders will justifiably remain sceptical. The experience of the past few years has been bitter. The lack of government support and its chaotic leadership during the pandemic; the lacklustre investment in education recovery; the ludicrous complexity of the National Tutoring Programme; the list goes on.

A recent ASCL survey showed that many senior leaders were considering quitting the profession because of exhaustion, workload, and lack of respect from the government. It is a shocking state of affairs. As a result, many school and college leaders will take some convincing that yesterday’s Autumn Statement really represents a new dawn. The government has a lot of ground to make up.

But it is a start, and words do matter. “Our message to heads and teachers today is thank you for your brilliant work,” the Chancellor said yesterday. Exactly.

Geoff Barton is ASCL General Secretary. 
Posted: 18/11/2022 11:10:23