Election 2024

Funding: ‘Functioning’ schools ‘won’t be immediate priority’

Ex-education adviser warns of 'very difficult conversations' on teacher pay

Ex-education adviser warns of 'very difficult conversations' on teacher pay

5 Jul 2024, 13:20

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Labour is walking into a public sector funding storm that could mean schools are not the Department for Education’s “most immediate, burning” priority. 

Politics guru Sam Freedman issued the warning at the Festival of Education yesterday, as he said that the DfE’s financial blackhole is set to cloud funding discussions over teacher pay rises. 

Freedman, who worked in the department under Michael Gove, told the event that “the scale of the challenge” facing the new government is “significantly harder” than 14 years ago.

Freedman

“That was at the start of the austerity period where we had to make cuts, but it has now been cut to the point where they have a big black hole in the budget in the DfE.

“And so, straight away, they are going to be trying to negotiate with the Treasury on … a one-year spending review in the budget in September.” 

He added that “very difficult conversations” will be had over teacher pay and school condition funding “from a position where the DfE are in a lot of financial trouble”.

Former education secretary Gillian Keegan confirmed towards the end of May that the government would not publish its response to recommendations on teacher pay before the election.

This was despite previous pledges to speed up the salary-setting process.

School budgets based on ‘assumptions’

Announcements have come right at the end of the summer term in recent years, throwing budget-setting into turmoil. 

River Learning Trust CFO Benedicte Yue said that, “if we are lucky, we should get the teacher pay announcement at the end of July. It’s very difficult when 80 per cent of your costs are staffing and you’re only relying on assumptions.”

The deadline for trust budgets is at the end of August and between May and June for council schools. 

School finance expert Micon Metcalfe said that using assumptions means schools are “banking on” the award not being above their limits, or getting a teacher pay grant if it is.

Labour’s manifesto also came under fire from the Institute for Fiscal Studies last month for “missing” key details on core school spending. Instead, it offers “mostly small” resources for the many pressing “challenges” facing education. 

A recent poll by Teacher Tapp found that 44 per cent of heads anticipate running a deficit budget next academic year.

But Labour repeatedly warned prior to the election that the state of public finances will hamstring its ability to carry out sweeping reform.

Jon Andrews, the Education Policy Institute’s head of analysis, noted that a “big unknown” is Labour’s failure to say what the national funding formula allocations will be.

“There’s limited time to make fundamental differences to the NFF, so we’ll probably see it in the same basic structure, he added”. 

‘Schools are functioning’

The “latest” that the DfE could set indicative NFF budgets is around the end of October, Andrews said. 

However, Freedman argued that, “for all the challenges that we can talk about, schools are functioning” – which is “not true” for the NHS, criminal justice system, policing and local government. 

Pointing to commitments over childcare for one and two-year-olds and university funding issues, he said that, even within the DfE, “schools might not feel like the most immediate, burning platform priority”.

But he noted the fact that “they have identified teacher recruitment as one of their six top pledges … means they are going to have to do something about it”.

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