School and college funding is under growing pressure. More pupils, the cumulative effect of education reforms, and increasingly complex special needs requirements have put significant strain on the education sector over the past decade, whilst pressures on social services have led schools and colleges to provide support across a growing variety of areas. Funding has not increased in line with these rising demands, as data from the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Education Policy Institute clearly show. Indeed, total school spending per pupil fell by 8% in real terms between 2009–10 and 2017–18. Per pupil funding for 2019–20 is expected to be similar to 2011–12 levels. Teachers, unions and parents have described to us in detail the scale of the impact this has had on children and young people, and on those working in the education sector.
Further education has been hit the hardest. Participation in full time further education has more than doubled since the 1980s, yet post-16 budgets have seen the most significant pressures of all education stages. Per student funding fell by 16% in real terms between 2010–11 and 2018–19 – twice as much as the 8% school funding fall over a similar period. This funding gap is the result of policy choices that now need to be addressed urgently. The social justice implications of the squeeze on further education colleges are particularly troubling, given the high proportion of disadvantaged students in these institutions.
The underlying reasons for this bleak funding picture are varied, ranging from the lingering consequences of the financial crisis through to systemic failures in forward planning and operational delivery, and significant discrepancies between funding requirements and budget availability that have driven a vicious cycle of spiralling costs. We noted that substantial amounts of money have been allocated to the education system–for example the additional £1.3 billion for schools and high needs, and the multi-million pound T level commitments–even within constrained fiscal circumstances. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies highlighted in its report on long-run trends in school spending, the Government took action to protect school funding between 2015–16 and 2019–20 as compared to other unprotected departments. We were pleased to see that education funding is rising up the political agenda, and that there is growing recognition of the need for a long-term plan to address the numerous ongoing challenges across the school and college funding system.
The Government’s mantra that ‘more money than ever is going into education’ has been counter-productive. Not only has it fuelled an unnecessarily adversarial relationship with parents and teachers across the country, but it has also given the impression of a Department unwilling to engage with the realities of funding pressures whilst signalling the Government was wrongly focusing on absolute funding levels rather than the more important question of actual sufficiency. We were pleased to see a recent change in the Department’s rhetoric on this front, and hope this indicates a long-overdue attempt to move beyond the deeply polarised stances that have characterised the debate in recent years.
Within the context of the upcoming spending review, the Department must make the strongest possible case to the Treasury for multi-billion pound funding increases, and take a much more strategic long-term approach to spending, or else risk stretching the school and college education system beyond breaking point.
Looking to the future, the Department must be clear that securing additional funding in the now overdue spending review will not fix deeper problems with the overall funding system. Throughout our inquiry we encountered a troubling lack of long-term vision – an issue compounded by the vagaries of the politically-driven spending review cycle which has encouraged a winner-takes-all short-termism wholly unsuited to the strategic cross-departmental approach needed to fix the broken funding system. Most concerning was the astonishing disconnect between the available funding and the costs of delivering a quality education and support system. Indeed, we were unable to determine whether the Department had a clear idea of how much money was needed to fund the various components of the school and college education system appropriately and efficiently. We suspected not.
We therefore call on the Department to develop a ten-year plan for education funding. This plan needs to focus on, at its core, what schools and colleges are expected to provide and the cost of doing so. It needs to recognise that education is a strategic national priority that has profound consequences across a wide range of social and economic policy issues. We expect the Department to engage in a frank conversation about what the education sector can and should deliver; develop a coherent vision of what it wants to achieve; and publish detailed bottom-up cost assessments in order to secure an adequate funding settlement from the Treasury. The Exchequer, for its part, must recognise the long-term value for money that would come with substantial investments to fix the underlying problems in an increasingly dysfunctional education funding system.
In addition, for the short- to medium-term we are calling on the Department to:
Published: 19 July 2019