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School funding remains Ofsted's elephant in the room

Elephant in the room web.jpg

As I said at the time, an annual health-check of the nation’s education system is incomplete without a view about whether the demands placed on schools can be met within the current financial picture.

But we were left hanging on that one.

The time has come when Ofsted must take a view on this issue.

MPs must also show they have a proper grasp of it too. But again, I’m not sure they all do. We’re getting some decent scrutiny from Robert Halfon’s select committee, but in the Commons chamber, it seems that the government is still being allowed to wriggle off the hook.

Back in the early days of the school funding campaign (January 2017 to be precise), the shadow education secretary Angela Rayner made a quip in the House of Commons. She asserted that the government’s plans for school funding meant that some parts of the country would lose out to others. "Robbing Peterborough to pay Poole" was the line she used.

In return, Nick Gibb retorted that both constituencies would see an increase in funding.

Last week, MPs returned to the debate. And to help them inform their speeches and cross-questioning in the chamber, the politically neutral House of Commons Library produced an exhaustive analysis of school funding allocations by each English constituency.

According to this impartial analysis, Peterborough has seen a 3.5 per cent fall in per-pupil funding from 2013-14 to 2017-18 (around £169 per child). Poole has dropped by 4.4 per cent over the same period (around £185 per child). So young people in both constituencies are being robbed.

The data presented by the House of Commons Library is remarkably similar to the School Cuts website that NAHT, NEU and others put together in order to illustrate the crisis in school funding.

Both websites use the same government datasets to make their conclusions. A quick look at the School Cuts website shows that pupils in Peterborough have lost £122 each due to the government’s real terms cuts. Pupils in Poole have lost £93 each.

So, the House of Commons Library paints a slightly worse picture than we did via the School Cuts website.

The government said the School Cuts website was "scaremongering".

The House of Commons library is proudly celebrating 200 years of providing "politically impartial briefing to MPs of all parties and their staff".

Let’s not forget at this point that the government has been criticised by the UK Statistics Authority for a lack of impartiality, painting a more optimistic picture of school funding and standards than is actually the case.

In October, Sir David Norgrove, chair of the UKSA, urged the Department for Education to ensure that data is ‘properly presented in a way that does not mislead.’

Of course, education is just one of the many different issues that MPs grapple with on any given day. The House of Commons Library must be a godsend for an MP who wants to make a sensible contribution to a debate without in-depth knowledge of their own to draw upon.

It doesn’t help them if the government is presenting data in a misleading way.

Not surprisingly, when we polled MPs on the school funding crisis, just over half believed that it was real.

Opinion was split down party lines, as you might expect, with nearly all (96 per cent) Labour MPs agreeing that there is a funding crisis in schools, compared to one in six (16 per cent) Conservative MPs. Even so, if 16 per cent of Conservatives are now willing to acknowledge that there is a crisis, it’s fair to say that our campaigning is having an impact.

As campaigners, this gives us hope. But it also tells us that there is more to do.

Perhaps now the House of Commons Library has provided MPs with a clear analysis of how school funding has been reduced, more MPs will be confident in making their minds up.

If they do, they’ll find themselves more in line with voters. In the 2017 General Election, around 800,000 people switched their votes because of what they’d heard about education.

On Friday this week, we’re in the constituency of Tamworth to campaign for emergency funding for young people, particularly those with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities.

We’ll be joined by prominent SEND campaigners including Carrie Grant, whose daughter has autism. Vic Goddard will also be among the speakers.

Tamworth, in case you’re interested, has seen per-pupil funding fall by 6.8 per cent. Each pupil now gets £307 less than they did in 2013/14.

The local MP is Christopher Pincher. On his website, he quotes the education figures that the UK Statistics Authority warned the DfE against using.

I’d urge him and his colleagues from all parties in Westminster to look at the analysis of the school funding crisis that their library has produced for them. They are not making it up.

And neither are we.

If you would like to take part in our funding campaign, please click here. 

This blog was written by NAHT general secretary, Paul Whiteman and was first published in TES 6 December 2018.

First published 07 December 2018