By Geoff Barton
General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders
Even by the standards of a government whose default response to funding and staff shortages in education is to stick its fingers in its ears, Wednesday’s Autumn Statement was particularly disappointing.
The speech itself mentioned little more than some funding to support apprenticeships and help for schemes to tackle antisemitism. In the accompanying document there’s mention of a programme to support neurodiverse children in primary schools.
There was nothing about the wider crisis in SEND funding, how schools and colleges are going to afford future pay awards which are even vaguely meaningful, and the fact that the school estate is literally falling apart.
And, in fact, the picture is even more bleak than it at first seems. Analysis
by the Institute for Fiscal Studies concludes that government departmental spending overall will be squeezed by inflation over the next few years.
It says: “The upshot is that by 2027-28, the OBR [Office for Budget Responsibility] estimates that the real value of departmental budgets will have been eroded by £19 billion. The government could have used the tax proceeds from higher inflation to compensate departments. Instead, they announced £20 billion of tax cuts.
“Plans beyond 2025 imply making cuts to some ‘unprotected’ areas (like local government, or prisons) and imply big cuts to the level of public investment.”
The OBR assumes that core school funding will at least be held flat in per-pupil real terms – although that still adds up to 13 years and counting without any actual growth, and therefore no prospect of relief from the stark reality of eye-wateringly tight budgets.
However, other areas of the education budget, such as post-16 education, do not have even that assurance, while the chances of anything like the sizeable increase in capital funding necessary to address the £11.4 billion of work needed to the school estate are remote. Neither is there much hope of an improvement in increased investment in the infrastructure of local support services which have already taken such a battering since 2010.
And lest we are tempted to think that Labour will ride to the rescue if elected at the next General Election, the party is being cautious about its spending plans. On education, it sets a great deal of store by its intention to raise money by levying VAT on private schools. But the size of the tax-take from this policy is highly debatable and nowhere near enough to meet the multiple pressures across the education system.
However, even if this all seems relentlessly gloomy, there is some room for optimism.
Because when push comes to shove, governments are very wary of being blamed by the public for a deterioration in the services upon which they depend.
The IFS reflects this in its analysis with a spending review due to take place next year. It says: “Past experience strongly suggests that when Chancellors come to actually dividing the spending pot up between departments, they decide that the pot needs to be bigger after all, and announce a top-up.”
And campaigning by a coalition of unions and organisations, including ASCL, has been successful on a number of occasions. It led to the funding boost for education in 2019, last year’s autumn statement injection of additional money by the Chancellor, and the resolution of the school teachers’ pay dispute with a further funding commitment from the government.
It does feel as though it has been a constant battle to drag at least some money out of ministers for an education service which very clearly needs a great deal more. But it is a lot better than where we would have been otherwise.
And that is perhaps what the Autumn Statement really means for schools and colleges. The fight must go on. We have to keep making the case for education.
After all, education is the best economic policy, the best social policy, the best moral policy.
Sound familiar? Those aren’t my words, but those of the Prime Minister in his speech to the Conservative Party Conference in October. Let’s make sure that we keep reminding governments – both now and in the future – of that statement.
And with a General Election hoving into view, let’s make sure parents (aka voters) are fully aware of this woeful underinvestment in their children - the nation’s young people.
is ASCL General Secretary.