Today is the beginning of the National Governance Association’s unprecedented Funding the Future week of action in which many school governors and trustees will be meeting their MP and explaining to them how the level of funding their pupils receive from the Government is curtailing their schools’ ability to provide the education their pupils need and deserve.
Why governors and trustees?
It is governing boards which agree the budgets for their trusts and schools; they are allocated public funding and on the advice of the school’s professional staff – headteachers, school business managers and in academy trusts, chief executives and chief finance officers – make the decisions on how to spend it in the best interests of the pupils.
These are difficult decisions – imagine you are faced with removing a subject from the sixth form or GCSE offer in order to save the salary of a teacher or two. Limiting access to music and the arts at primary school. Or scaling back the support you are able to provide to pupils with additional needs.
No one volunteered to make people redundant, but very few are walking away from these stressful situations.
Governing boards have huge knowledge of school finances, which need to inform the decisions made outside their sphere of influence. If politicians do not know what effect the funding squeeze is having on pupils’ education, schools will not feature as high up their list of investment priorities as it should.
Why school funding?
For a number of years many governors and trustees have been telling us that the pressure on budgets is their number one concern for their schools. Although many are not yet in deficit, they can see that they are running down their reserves in order to balance their budget and this cannot continue for much longer: those reserves are running out. This is not sustainable. Schools in the worst funded parts of the country thought that the new national funding formula might be the answer to their problems, but this has not transpired yet. But this is not about cutting the cake differently, the cake available to schools is simply not big enough. This is not just an assertion from NGA: the figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies show total school spending per pupil has fallen by 8% in real terms between 2009-10 and 2017-18. England’s schools have more pupils than ever to educate but the funding is not keeping pace. We have more pupils with special educational needs and disabilities, but the funding is not keeping pace.
We have worked with the Department for Education (DfE) on their tools to help schools improve their financial efficiency: of course public funding has to be spent in the best possible way. We have disseminated information to governing boards and run training sessions on getting the best value out of their funding, but this has not solved the problem for many schools. We urge schools with financial pressures to take up the Government’s ‘deals for schools’ offer. We have spoken to governing boards about the minister, Lord Agnew, calls ICFP – integrated curriculum financial planning – to discover than most schools are indeed doing this but without the acronym.
Why contacting parliamentarians?
The NGA is not an organisation which delights in shouting the odds: we listen carefully to our members and evaluate the evidence. We share the annual governance survey results with the DfE, so they are well aware of the difficulties being reported by governing boards in balancing their budgets. We sit on various DfE funding consultative groups and have input into the ESFA, and we have written each year to urge the Chancellor of the Exchequer to find the additional funding that is required.
In summer 2017, after education funding became an issue on the doorstep in the General Election, an additional £ 1.3 billion for core schools funding until the end of the current Spending Review period in 2019-20 was reallocated within DfE’s budget to schools. Many MPs went to meet with the Secretary of State or one of her ministers in the DfE, often alongside a headteacher or two from their constituency.
If we are to achieve the investment in education, it needs to have the support of our elected representatives. They need to understand the situation in our schools and what funding pressures mean for pupils.
In 2018, three quarters of the respondents to our school governance survey told us that they could no longer balance their schools or trusts budgets without damaging the education of pupils. This was just as much the case for the trustees of multi academy trusts (78%) as for governors of maintained primary schools (74%).
This surely is shocking. The Government and parliament have rather a lot of on their plate at the moment, but sometime later this year there will be a Comprehensive Spending Review which sets out the Government’s financial plans for the coming years. The Chancellor and Her Majesty’s Treasury will be preparing for that. If governing boards do not share their experience now, schools may miss out again. This would not be fair on the children – present and future – we have the privilege to educate.