We may know who will govern the country for the next five years, but the detail of education funding under a Conservative administration remains opaque
David Cameron has called for greater efficiency and lean management in public bodies, a call that signals a strong intent to make further cuts to public services.
In their pre-election manifesto, the Conservatives pledged to protect school funding in cash terms during this parliament, but we know this translates to a real-terms reduction over the next few years.
What is still unclear are the elements of the budget that this protection covers. Will it include pupil premium, universal infant free school meals, special educational needs, post-16 provision? What about capital funding?
We still don’t seem to know what it costs to run a school
The future responsibilities of schools forums are also worth considering. If we move to a pure national funding formula, as pledged by the Conservatives, what latitude will local authorities retain to move funding between the allowable formula factors and, indeed, what powers will schools forums be given to influence such local decisions? School leaders should not ignore the influence of this local process in determining what level of funding eventually arrives at their institution.
All this before we consider the cost pressures facing schools during the next comprehensive review period: increased national insurance and pension contributions, cost of living increases, incremental drift, reduction in post-16 academic programmes, reductions to education services grant funding for academies. Estimates suggest this may amount to a hit on schools budgets of between 5 to 8 per cent.
So given this gloomy outlook, I suggest that to mitigate the strain on their budgets schools must:
– Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate
– Remove duplication and identify synergies across schools
– Share and centralise functions where appropriate
– Think lean – look at inefficiency in current processes
– Asses the value and impact of all spend areas, including staff at all levels
Funding allocations for all government departments for the next comprehensive spending review are due to be announced shortly. Let’s hope this provides more detail.
Challenges for the politicians will include funding for pupils with high needs, narrowing the attainment gap and removing the regional funding inequities that continue to prevail in the system.
Before the election, schools were drawing attention to a perceived “funding crisis” across all school types and phases. Although the coalition’s stated policy was to protect education funding, the reality has been that funds reaching classrooms have been significantly reduced by unfunded pay rises for both teachers and support staff, a rise in contributions to teachers’ pensions and general inflation.
Additionally, sixth forms have seen a 20 per cent reduction over the life of this parliament, in part to cover the unfunded costs of raising the participation age in education or training to 18.
The financial pressure has been compounded by a redistribution of school funding.
While it clearly has merit, the pupil premium – which moves money to those eligible for free schools meals, with low prior attainment, English as a second language or other deprivation indicators – has only been made possible by rediverting “mainstream” funding.
Despite attempts to improve efficiency, schools are facing large deficits, with potential consequences to learning outcomes. Indeed the future viability of some schools may be in question.
Incredibly, we still don’t seem to know what it costs to run a school. As the National Funding Formula (NFF) debate rumbles on, beneficiaries of NFF will claim it is the only way they can survive, whilst currently generously funded schools will fear the consequences of significant cuts to their allocations.