The DfE should bat for the funding the school system needs, not bow down as soon as the Treasury comes calling, says Mike Cameron

A couple of weeks ago I was involved in the selection of a new headteacher for the school where I am a governor. We had a field of six excellent candidates from diverse schools, but there was one common thread: they were all having to cut their budgets.

They were increasing class sizes, reviewing curriculum provision, cutting non-teaching posts, etc – all the things that you would expect because you’ve seen them in your own schools.

So how close are we to getting general agreement that there is a problem with school funding? (Obviously with those outside schools – pretty much everyone working in a school understands the situation well enough.)

Slater has seen the projections. He knows cuts have to be made

Anyone watching Nick Gibb at last week’s education select committee would surely have been struck by the weariness in his mantra: “We have protected the amount we are spending in schools per pupil in cash terms.” At one point he said it twice within 30 seconds and each time you could see him die a little.

This is why the appearance at the public accounts committee a couple of weeks ago of Jonathan Slater, the Department of Education’s permanent secretary, was quite important. This is what he said: “As the National Audit Office rightly points out, the government has protected funding of schools overall in real terms, but not per pupil.”

A little different to the Gibb mantra, recognising that the rise in student numbers will have a huge impact. He went on to say: “You can carry on having the same teachers and staff. But that would be a missed opportunity. There are opportunities across the system, to be saving in excess of £1 billion in non-staffing costs. That is an additional £1 billion that can be invested to spend on more teachers.”

Slater effectively admitted such savings (cuts, for this is what they are) will be necessary for schools to stay inside the cash envelop set for the parliament. Indeed he later discussed the “savings” to be made on staffing costs: “Staff savings will require more curriculum planning, a review of supply arrangements; it’s the management of senior leadership teams.”

The permanent secretary is making these comments because he knows cuts will have to be made. He has seen the projections that show we can expect at least a 10 per cent increase in numbers in secondary schools before the end of this parliament. Interestingly, he also spoke about efficiencies that have already been made in primary schools to cope with increased pupil numbers, so it is not unreasonable to assume the cuts will have to come largely from the secondary sector.

Which brings us nicely on to the national funding formula.

A national funding formula that removes unnecessary and indefensible anomalies is a good thing. What is not a good thing, in a time when schools will have to make unprecedented “efficiency savings”, is that 40 per cent are having to also undergo funding reductions. If we look at just secondary schools, the 1,566 who, according to DfE consultation figures, are losing funding, will have to find an additional £150 million of “efficiency” savings. That’s an extra 2.2 per cent of their existing budgets.

This could have been avoided. I’m talking about the £368 million that the DfE gave back to the Treasury that was set aside for the “forced academisation” policy, since dropped. This would have enabled the department to go a long way towards not having to cut the budget of any school.

And, yes, I do understand the difference between a one-off lump of cash and an annual revenue requirement. But that’s the job of the DfE: to go to bat for the funding the school system needs, not to bow down as soon as the Treasury comes calling.

I don’t want to tell Jonathan Slater how he should do his job, but having been a budget holder in many different environments, I can tell him rule one of holding a budget. It’s a rule all those prospective heads would know; indeed, one any budget holder in any school could tell you:

Keep a tight grip, and never give anything back.