Budget 2017: A missed opportunity for schools

Philip Hammond’s 2017 Budget will be remembered as a missed opportunity for education, says Russell Hobby

When the government announced extra money to expand grammar schools yesterday, it was clear today’s Budget would offer nothing for existing schools. And so it has proved.

The question for Philip Hammond now is not how schools can make savings, but ‘why?’ What price are we prepared to pay to reduce school funding?

The last few years have already seen school leaders having to make increasingly difficult decisions and more drastic cuts. We have got to a point where for many schools there are no obvious savings left to be made. School trips have been cancelled, text books are out of date, buildings are crumbling. Now the only thing left is to cut staff.

It is fundamentally the wrong priority to allocate greater resources to schools that have not yet been created

More than 80 per cent of school budgets are spent on staffing, so it is clear that the £3 billion of savings the government expects schools to find will result in fewer school staff.

This cannot help but have negative consequences, often for the most vulnerable. Class sizes will increase, the curriculum will narrow, training will be cut and support for struggling children will be reduced. The UK is one of the wealthiest countries in the world – how can we tell our children that there is no money to spare for them?

For school leaders watching the Budget, the anger will be two-fold: nothing is being provided for existing schools, despite the evident pressures they are under; but the government can find resources for new free schools to deliver its grammar plans.

When the system is struggling to deliver sufficient resources for existing schools, it is fundamentally the wrong priority to allocate greater resources to schools that have not been created yet, and that will not provide help where there is the greatest need.

Whatever their other merits, free schools are a costly and impractical way to provide places – the worst example of ideology over common sense. Grammar schools actually lower standards in the areas around them. To create free grammar schools therefore seems like inefficiency compounded by wrong-headedness.

What could the chancellor have offered today? The National Audit Office highlights a funding shortfall of £3 billion due to the real terms cuts schools face. This would have been ambitious, but an investment, rather than a cost.

But other simpler and cheaper options were open to the Treasury. Part of the frustration from school leaders is that their costs have been rising because of actions taken by the government – rising national insurance contributions, increasing pension costs, the national living wage and, from April, the apprenticeship levy. The government is giving with one hand and taking with the other.

They have the levers to address this. Why not exempt schools from the apprenticeship levy? Or ensure all schools get the pupil premium they are entitled to through auto registering pupils for free school meals? In writing to the Chancellor, along with the National Governors’ Association ahead of the Budget, NAHT set out a number of practical solutions to the funding crisis. All were ignored.

We know through our campaigning work that many MPs understand the pressures schools in their constituency face. The government often states that the proposed national funding formula will deliver for schools. But without sufficient funding in the first place, this will only succeed in distributing inadequate resources in a more equitable way. The Treasury risks undermining the DfE’s flagship policy.

Another claim from the government is that spending on schools is protected. With rising costs and increasing pupil numbers, spending is not protected. For many schools, this Budget was their last chance. In our annual breaking point survey published in January, 72 per cent of school leaders told us that their budgets will be unsustainable by 2019. This Budget was a chance to address this, but will be remembered as a missed opportunity for education.

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