Improving education was a key priority in the 1997 general election which swept the Labour Party to victory. Tony Blair’s “Education, Education, Education” mantra, coined in 1996, made education a critical area of policy and highlighted the deficit in school and college funding. Over the next ten years, the Labour Party made good on its promise to prioritise education with core pupil funding increased 5% year on year in real terms.
From 2010 until 2015, despite the education budget being notionally protected from cuts in a time of austerity, headline spending still fell by over 14%, causing rumbles of discontent among teachers and parents. From 2015 onwards a cash freeze was imposed on the education budget, and spend is predicted to fall in real terms by approximately 8% by 2020. This is the first real terms cut to the education budget since the mid 90s and will represent the largest fall in education funding since the 1970s.
The conservatives have pledged to introduce a National Funding Formula to ensure that funds are appropriately distributed, and that a minimum level of educational provision is available throughout the country, however teaching unions and parents are concerned that this means that specialist services may be cut to massage the figures and even that core support services are under threat.
Predictions by the NUT and AUT made in November 2016 of the impact of the cuts have proven to be an underestimate, with National Audit Office figures suggesting that 98% of schools will see a real terms budget decrease while inflation related costs, including additional pension regulations, will approach 8.7% meaning school budgets are squeezed in both directions – with more money required to sustain the level of service but less funding available to do so.
Christine Blower, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, the largest teachers’ union, said: “The Government’s so-called ‘fair funding’ proposals will impose huge funding cuts on many schools unless additional funding is made available. Schools are already suffering real terms cuts to per pupil funding…reallocating inadequate resources will simply shunt funding problems around the school system.
Parents too are worried at the implications. Schools are making on parents to supplement their budgets are causing resentment, and proposals that local councils are making to cope with the cuts – such as larger class sizes, four day weeks, cutting school hours or even charging parents to attend nativity plays, are meeting resistance. For parents of older pupils with university on the horizon, the prospect of £9K tuition fees looms large.
The protest group “Fair Funding for all Schools” has been established to demand increased investment in all schools by protecting per-pupil funding in real terms for the life of this parliament, and also provide the additional funding needed to implement the National Funding Formula in comparatively poorly funded areas without cutting funding per pupil elsewhere. Local and regional protests have been called and the group has been encouraging people to set up their own school based campaigns, with a view to pressurising their elected representatives on the issue.
The recent announcement that the Education Secretary is increasing core funding per pupil may be thought of as a shrewd move but will unlikely to appease voters more than momentarily, given that there is no additional funding being made available. Indeed it could create more voter unrest given that the areas of the education budget that may be raided to pay for the core increase, such as free schools, tend to benefit the children of those with sharper elbows.
Labour is supportive of the principle of a National Funding Formula but critical of the level at which it is set. The party has pledged a comprehensive package of measures to improve education, including 30 hours of free childcare during term-time for all two-year-olds, limit class sizes to 30 pupils for all five, six, and seven-year-olds, the reinstatement of the Educational Maintenance Grant (scrapped in 2011) as part of a new “National Education Service”. It has also announced its intention to scrap university tuition fees, a headline grabbing move which will appeal to parents of older children and younger voters alike. To meet this, they have pledged an additional £25.3 billion in funding raised from additional tax revenue.
Six billion of this will be dedicated exclusively to school funds, to meet the funding gap allowing schools to continue to provide the current level of service, while also allocating £90 million to enhancing provision for counselling in schools to meet the increasing need for mental health support in children. It has also pledged to increase the quality of education, by “transitioning to a qualified graduate-led workforce through increasing staff wages and enhancing training opportunities.
An IPSOS-Mori poll conducted in April showed education as the third most important issue for voters in the June election, behind healthcare and managing the economy. Labour showed a substantial lead over the conservatives in this policy area with 8% of voters considering them better able to manage education effectively.
With Teresa May’s government insecurely propped up by the DUP; under pressure from Brexit and coping with the fallout from austerity, it is increasingly likely that this government will not complete its full term in office and another general election may be in the offing. The terrain on which it will be fought still to be determined but education will undoubtedly feature.
As the effects of the cuts bite deeper, it may well increase in priority for voters with the package offered by the Labour Party becoming more attractive.
Education may not be being accorded the totemic importance assigned by Tony Blair 20 years ago, but Corbyn has signalled during the last election that education would remain a critical area of concern for any incoming Labour Government and that will resonate well with parents and teachers who are feeling the effects of the cuts and worried about the future of their children and pupils.