School cuts campaign to focus on plight of special schools

Unions' website will refocus on the funding woes of special schools and post-16 institutions after claiming victory in the autumn statement

Unions' website will refocus on the funding woes of special schools and post-16 institutions after claiming victory in the autumn statement


The influential school cuts campaign will now refocus on highlighting the plight of special schools and post-16 institutions after claiming success in its push for more funding. 

For the first time, its website will give funding figures for non-mainstream schools amid fears their high teacher-pupil ratios will put them in greater financial difficulty.

“Our campaign worked”, a new home page for the union-backed campaign’s website now states, after the chancellor announced an extra £2 billion of school funding in each of the next two years.

The campaign exists to show families, school staff and their local communities the impact of national funding decisions on individual settings and council areas. It also asks parents and others to sign open letters to their MPs, lobbying for more funding.

Unions behind the initiative relaunched the service in October amid warnings of a growing school funding shortfall caused by rising costs and unfunded pay rises.

It predicted at the time that 90 per cent of schools would have lower per-pupil funding in real terms in 2023-24, compared to the current financial year.

That has changed following the autumn statement last week, and National Education Union statisticians are working on updating figures to factor-in the additional funding.

‘The work isn’t over’ on school cuts

It is not the first time the school cuts campaign has claimed a victory. After the 2017 election, polling suggested 750,000 changed their vote because of concerns about school funding.

A £1.3 billion funding increased was announced just weeks later.

The campaign lobbied again in 2019 for more funding, and Boris Johnson announced a £7.1 billion increase over three years.

NEU joint general secretary Kevin Courtney told Schools Week he was “confident” the campaign was one of the reasons the chancellor announced the funding last week, but said the fight had not yet been won.

“There’s not enough money in school budgets. But what it’s shown is that campaigning can be effective.”

The website, he said, allows the campaign to “break down for parents a big number like a £2 billion spending gap … where nobody can understand what that number means for their child’s education”.

But “even now there’s not enough money to allow inflation-matching pay rises, so the work certainly isn’t over. But you have to note your successes along the way.”

The union is now “working to understand” how the £2 billion will be distributed. Department for Education permanent secretary Susan Acland-Hood told MPs on Monday it was “highly likely it will go out through a version of the [existing funding formula]”.

However, allocations are unlikely to be published before next month, and it is also not clear how much of the funding will be for high needs or post-16 education.

‘Deep concern’ for special schools

The campaign’s focus on SEND is prompted in part by concerns about the disproportionate impact of rising costs on special schools. Even Mark Lehain, a former DfE special adviser, admitted this week that special school funding was “still in a pickle”.

Margaret Mulholland, SEND specialist at the ASCL school leaders’ union, said they were “deeply concerned about the impact of inflationary costs on special schools”.

“These schools by necessity have high staff-to-pupil ratios in order to provide the support that is needed by their pupils. The lack of government funding for national pay awards for teachers and support staff is therefore even more unaffordable than it is for mainstream schools.”

Schools Week investigations have also revealed how extra cash for special schools is not being passed on by local authorities, who are instead using it to plug huge high-needs funding deficits.

“It is essential that the government urgently addresses the pressures on special schools, and indeed on special needs provision in mainstream settings, as this is key to supporting the most vulnerable children in our society,” added Mulholland.

The school cuts campaign is not without its critics, especially in the Conservative Party.

In 2019, spurred on by a complaint from the then party chair James Cleverly, the UK Statistics Authority concluded a claim that 91 per cent of schools were facing funding cuts gave a “misleading impression”.

But Courtney said the campaign “survived that complaint”, and only had to change the tense to state the schools had been cut.

“They didn’t do what James Cleverly wanted at all which was to take the website down,” he said.

“That’s the other thing about our campaign that really matters, of course, is that the data behind it, the figures that we put have been shown to be really robust.”

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