People are getting their knickers in a twist this week about a bunch of separate budget-related things but keep talking about them as if they are all the same issue. It is not helpful.
The golden thread between the problems is money. There is only so much cash to go around, which is making the school community grumpy and fighty.
But it is unhelpful to conflate, say, money for new schools – which is a real need that we shouldn’t beat up the government for trying to solve – with thoughts about grammar schools, for example.
Here are five important (and separate) things to know:
1. We need lots of new schools . . . blame it on the recent baby boom
2. All new schools will be “free schools” because the government committed to opening them in its 2015 manifesto. They are not special or magical; they are just new schools.
3. Existing schools need about £6.7 billion so their building condition is “at least satisfactory”. The government is offering in this budget £216 million.
4. There is, however, money for grammar schools: £50 million has already been set aside for them and some of the new school money will also go into them.
5. School budgets overall – not just for buildings – are really squeezed at the minute, and this means lots of people are losing their jobs and services are being cut back.
Hence, three things are going on – a need for new schools, a need to fix existing schools, and a need to fund the day-to-day running of schools.
New schools have been reasonably well-served. A chunk of cash is being put aside for free schools, which are really just new schools, and they are increasingly built in areas where the local council has identified a need.
It’s not silly of the chancellor to put money into the project. Kids need places and the government promised it would build 500 schools. Sure, there are issues with free schools. They’ve historically been rushed, land costs are expensive, and – as our report on asbestos safety in free schools story shows – in their haste to get them opened the government sometimes cuts safety corners that it later pays dearly for.
What is more interesting is the smaller amount of money for school improvements
What is more interesting is the smaller amount of money for school improvements. Children across the country are in full-to-bursting classrooms, many of which are damp with poor ventilation and lighting, so contributing to sickness and teacher turnover. There are still schools that had long-awaited buildings cancelled in 2010 that have no date for renovation.
At first, this seems terrible. But, could it be that there’s a clever plan?
In ten years, when the baby boom peters out and Brexit delivers lower immigration, there will be half-empty shiny new schools and others with roofs falling in. At that point it would make sense to move the kids from the falling-apart schools into the shiny ones and sell off the land, neatly making money for the Treasury in the long-term and saving on repair costs in the short-term. Plus, given the move towards online learning and remote-working, one might even believe that by 2027 more children will be educated at home, and that even fewer school buildings will be needed. Lack of investment now could end up being a smart move.
On paper, it’s a glorious plan. Especially if you’re in an office thinking it up. But it’s far, far less glorious when it’s your classroom that’s freezing in the winter, or your child whose asthma kicks off because she is sitting in a mould-ridden room, six hours a day.
Which is why people are getting angry about grammar schools. Putting aside whether they are a good thing or not, the fact is that they are an expensive thing. Building new schools costs. Transporting children 15 miles to these schools will be even more expensive. And doing so in the face of super-squeezed budgets, when it could have a detrimental impact on local schools in terms of funding and the loss of a genuinely comprehensive intake, feels like wilful neglect.
Then there’s the overall school budget issue, in which leaders are trying to do more with less. Toby Young, head of the New Schools Network, complained in the media this week that the issue of new schools is separate to budgets overall. He’s right. To an extent.
The country needs more schools and it is getting the money for them. But it also needs decent buildings and great teachers, and more money is needed for those too. Funding one issue does not mean you get away with not funding everything else.