Education and the Comprehensive Spending Review

Education has not hit the headlines in the spending review just announced for 2015-16. The government’s key claim is that school budgets have been protected in real terms. The total revenue spend of the DfE is reduced by 1.0% and its capital spend by 1.7% after inflation.

That may seem as good as could be expected in the circumstances. There are however a good many issues lurking in the small print … and indeed some not actually addressed in the document at all.

First is the issue of pupil numbers. DfE projections are for a 1.2% increase in pupil numbers between 2014 and 2015. This is nowhere referred to in the CSR documents – just that budgets are protected in real terms. It seems likely that this means adjusted for inflation but not for pupil numbers. If so there is an immediate real cut in the actual value of the schools budget.

One other change that affects schools is a cut of £200 million in the Education Services Grant – a cut of about 20%. This is funding removed from Local Authority budgets for those services that academies provide for themselves and local authorities provide for maintained schools. The Dfe divides it up between LAs and academies. The weasel words of the review are that this is to be achieved by “realising efficiencies and enabling local authorities to focus on their core role on schools.” What is not said is that this will also be a cut of just over £20 per pupil on academies as well as local authorities.

DfE administration budgets take another hit, cut by 9.4% down to just over £300 million. Although there are to be more academies and free schools, the central cost of these programmes is to be reduced by £150 million. Given that the DfE is patently not coping with what it is trying to do now (including trying and failing to monitor and support academies) it’s hard to see anything other than continuing muddle and inefficiency.

Gove’s pet projects however survive. Plans are for 180 new free schools, 20 more studio schools and 20 more university technical colleges. There is not a word however about the ongoing crisis in primary places nor the fact that by 2015 this will be rapidly approaching the secondary age range.

In policy terms, there are a couple of bombs being planted that are likely to have very significant consequences. One is the ending of automatic progression for teacher salaries. This has of course already been set in motion by Gove and the pay review body. For Gove it is all about paying good teachers more. As he said in his letter to Stephen Twigg, “will you support our drive to give more schools the freedom to pay good teachers more”? Osborne however clearly has something very different in mind – his clear aim is to pay teachers and other public sector workers less. At a time of static or falling budgets, this was of course always going to be the reality.

The other is the continuing commitment to a national funding formula for schools. Having looked at this once and backed off, they want still to come back to it. To do this at a time of static or falling budgets is what Sir Humphrey would have described as “courageous”. The upheaval will be massive. There will be many losers and there is likely to be no way losses will be kept to Labour constituencies. It’s worth noting too that this is often spun as being the fault of local government that perversely chooses to pay similar schools very different amounts. In reality, the problem is that the DfE allocates money to local authorities in an historic and not particularly rational way. This is one of those issues that sound simple at a desk in Whitehall but in reality will cause complete mayhem if pursued – as indeed it did when Labour tried to rationalise the system even at a time of rising budgets some ten years ago.

The emphasis in the review is on schools. Unpicking what will happen to further and higher education is difficult – departmental figures aren’t broken down to show what will happen. But there is enough there to confirm that the squeeze on FE in particular will continue.

Finally it is perhaps amusing to see that the government pats itself on the back for increasing the number of pupils getting 5 A* to C (including the much maligned equivalents) from 55.1% in 2010 to 58.8% in 2012. They prefer not to mention that the 2012 cohort had 10 out of 12 years education under a Labour government. And of course in Gove’s view GCSE is rubbish and rising pass rates are just evidence of grade inflation!

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One Comment on “Education and the Comprehensive Spending Review”

  1. Well said, John. A very useful summary and critique.

    The inequity in school funding has been evident ever since authority-by-authority data was published in the 1990s and various proposals for ameliorating the differences have been made and each time shelved. There are many contentious issues, such as how can the higher costs of small schools and old buildings be built into formulae and should primary school pupils continue to be worth less than secondary? Inevitably a new system introduced now will mean there are winners and losers. This is an expected occurrence in the market place, but is not acceptable for schools since reduction in the income of the ‘loser’ schools will prejudice the education of its children. The only just way of introducing a new formula is when the state has sufficient funds to differentially raise the levels of funding until every school meets the formula – without taking funds from the hitherto better off. Clearly that can’t happen now.