School
School

Education secretary Damian Hinds reassures us that the government has actually increased spending on our children’s education – but his flimsy grasp of figures demonstrates that maths was never his strong point. Either that or he’s being extremely economical with the truth.

Back down here on planet Earth, the latest Institute for Fiscal Studies data shows school budgets have been cut by £1.7bn since 2015. Since the Tories took power in 2010 it’s actually a massive £7 billion.

Between 2016 and 2020 schools in the Stroud constituency will have lost nearly £2 million funding. While our two grammar schools are actually seeing a modest increase in their budgets, others are doing rather worse – particularly our larger secondary schools. For instance, Archway School will be subject to a shortfall of more than £200,000 – despite an increase in pupil numbers.

In the autumn budget it was announced with a great fanfare that austerity was over. It was Mr Hammond’s triumph; Theresa May’s face even cracked a smile. Surely that meant that social services would be properly funded, that companies would be forced to pay living wages, that food banks would no longer be needed… And schools would no longer need to lay off staff, arts, humanities and sports activities would be properly resourced again, that teachers’ salaries would start to catch up with inflation again… Alas no. But in all fairness no one believed a word of it anyway.

What we did get was a one-off lump of £400 million, ring-fenced so it would be spent on the “little extras”, such as pens, paper, glue, whiteboards etc… While every little helps, it’s the core expenditure in education that urgently needs addressing. The very real cuts over the past eight years have led to staff lay-offs, crumbling schools infrastructure and a damaging narrowing of children’s overall education to the three Rs, due to budgetary restraints and the myopic, test-driven ‘audit culture’ of successive National Curricula.

Reacting to Mr Hammond’s budgetary largess, shadow education secretary Angela Rayner said, “The Tories have slashed billions from schools and now the Chancellor thinks they should be grateful he’s offered them a whiteboard… Instead of offering a sticking plaster to schools this government should be genuinely investing in them, reversing their unjustifiable cuts.”

The strain on our schools is exacerbated by the lack of equality in funding between academies, grammar schools and council funded primary and comprehensive schools, with no guesses for which end up worst off. An unfortunate anomaly is that children at academies may in fact be receiving less benefit from their schools’ ‘per pupil’ budgets due to the corporatised set-up of so many academies and academy chains – with top “executives” awarding themselves bloated salaries, thus siphoning off vital funds.

Yet another pressure, not often talked about in education, is the scourge of outsourcing – it’s not only the NHS that has been ravaged by privatisation. While schools and teachers are directly employed by councils or the government itself, most ancillary services are now in private hands, with schools having to pay contractors for repairs, meals, specialist pastoral help etc., from their yearly budgets. The marketisation of these services has increased costs enormously.

Of course austerity hasn’t just affected our schools, it has affected families as well – most especially families on the lower end of the income scale. The knock-on effect of our nation’s ever increasing inequality has meant more and more children suffer the consequences of abuse, neglect and hunger. These factors impact dreadfully on those children’s lives and on their education. Social services are often too stretched to give the support that’s needed, and equally schools struggle to deal with the needs of kids who, through no fault of their own, are unable to cope.

Children’s safeguarding has been a major concern in Gloucestershire, with the county council repeatedly failing to satisfy Ofted that it is making sufficient progress on the issue. With local authority funding halved since 2010 it’s hardly surprising that GCC are struggling so badly, especially considering its profligacy in spending £800 for each and every person in the county on a certain incinerator.

Of all the sectors in education, it’s surely SEND – children with special educational needs and disabilities – that’s been let down the worst by the Tory government. There are far too few places in far too few special schools for all the kids who struggle in mainstream education, so provision has to be made for them within the general school system. The extra support special needs children require is both hard to obtain and expensive. SEND coordinators can go through the rigorous process of applying for Education Health Care plans for children, which supply a certain amount of funding for one to one care for the kids with the greatest need – but with the county council already having drastically overspent its decimated SEND budget, such plans are becoming ever harder to access.

Plans have been aired to make up some of the deficit in special needs education by taking money from mainstream school budgets, but this simply means one sector will be even more impoverished while the other still won’t be given anywhere near sufficient funding.

Angela Rayner put it very succinctly: “Theresa May said that austerity was over, but it is clear that the most vulnerable children in society will continue to suffer for years to come.”

Labour set out its future plans for education in its manifesto statement, “Towards a National Education Service”. It describes how a Labour government will reverse the Tory spending cuts, put more money into Sure Start Centres and make sure a workable child care system is introduced.

As for children with special educational needs and disabilities, it will ensure both teachers and non-teaching staff have a better level of SEND training, so that staff, children and their parents are properly supported, and more funding will be made available for supporting services.

Labour states it will tackle the teacher recruitment and retention crisis by ending the public-sector pay cap, giving teachers more direct involvement in the curriculum, and tackling rising workloads by reducing monitoring and bureaucracy. Also Labour plans to abandon the reintroduction of baseline testing, and will be assessing the necessity of Standard Assessment Testing. The Labour Party acknowledges that the world’s most successful education systems use more continuous assessment, which avoids ‘teaching for the test’. That will be music to the ears of teachers, parents and children alike.

A wider education, in the full sense of the word, and less emphasis on the present toxic test obsessed, “audit culture” in schools, is the very least we can do for the next generation.

Paul Halas

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