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A Chance To End School Cuts

The last decade has not been kind to education. Schools were far from perfect in the first ten years of the century but, with hindsight, it almost looks like a golden age. In the decade that followed there was no shortage of damaging reforms introduced by the Coalition and then Tory governments: forced academisation, ramping up of stressful high-stakes testing in primary schools, the narrowing of the curriculum through the ‘English baccalaureate’. 

But no change has been more brutal than the cuts to school funding. Across the country, schools are losing staff, resources are becoming scarcer and some schools are no longer even open for a full five days a week. Teachers like me have felt the damaging effects of these changes but it has been the children in our care who have suffered the most. Schools desperately need their funding cuts to be reversed. Both major parties accept this in rhetoric, but only one commits to it in action.

How did we get here? Back in 2015, the Tory Government introduced two changes at once in an attempt to obfuscate what they were doing: shrinking the pot of funding whilst also redistributing it. The goal was to hide the cuts behind their claim to ‘address historic underfunding’. They wanted people to think that they were only robbing Peter to pay Paul. But the scale of the cuts meant that almost every school in the country was affected, including those they claimed were already underfunded.

The result was a revolt amongst Tory MPs and candidates, and the massive success of the National Education Union’s (NEU) general election campaign in 2017. In raising the profile of school cuts the union made the issue the second most important in the election, and 750,000 people changed their votes as a result.

The Tories have learned their lesson, in part. Their 2019 manifesto promises an additional £14bn over the next three years. This sounds good but the National Education Union’s analysis shows that even with this money included, 83% of schools will still lose out next year as a result of cuts. The NEU, it should be noted, is politically independent.

In fact, by the time all of this new money has been distributed there will only be one local authority in the country faring better than they were in 2015: the City of York will be up by just under £20 per pupil. Every other local authority will be worse off. The schools hit hardest are those in inner cities, those in Labour authorities and those with high numbers of children on free school meals. The latter is the best proxy we have for those trapped in poverty. 

Conservative spending plans claim to address the school funding crisis but the numbers say otherwise. By contrast, Labour’s appear to go much further. They have committed an astounding £24.8bn on top of the existing Government proposals, promising a new funding formula which “leaves no child worse off”. 

This staggering figure would easily be enough to repair the damage to schools. It affords them the credibility to guarantee that all schools are open for a full five days a week and to promise that no primary school child is in a class greater than thirty. The latter featured on Labour’s election pledge card in 1997 but is relevant once more after a decade of under-funding has left one in ten primary children are in ‘supersized’ classes of greater than 31.

But with this kind of budget, a Labour government could go well beyond simply returning schools to their 2010 state. The Labour manifesto promises an increase in non-contact time for teachers, which would facilitate better-resourced and more interesting lessons. It pledges an ‘Arts Pupil Premium’ so children from disadvantaged backgrounds do not miss out on the richer curriculum enjoyed by their wealthier peers. And it would finally begin to properly address the needs of children with special educational needs or disabilities, who have been neglected for too long. With the money that the party is pledging, these manifesto commitments are all feasible.

Thanks to years of campaigning by the National Education Union there is now a political consensus that schools are under-funded. At this election, voters will finally have the chance to put an end to school cuts and start the new decade on a new path.

  • James McAsh is a primary school teacher in Brixton, and the President of the National Education Union, Lambeth District. He blogs here.
Work areas: Education.

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