The Guardian view on schools and austerity: more than just a funding crisis | Editorial

Underpaid teachers are on the frontline as the impact of cuts to other services is felt in the classroom

When the Conservatives first took Britain down the path of budget austerity in 2010, schools were meant to be protected. George Osborne, chancellor at the time, was confident in the public’s readiness to tolerate most cuts, but even he realised that taking money away from education was toxic.

As with similar promises on NHS spending, the “ring-fence” around the schools budget turns out to be woefully inadequate. Research published on Friday by the Education Policy Institute (EPI), an independent thinktank, finds that a quarter of English secondary schools are running a deficit. No one with knowledge of the education sector imagines those budget overruns describe managerial largesse. The problem is not enough incoming cash to cover the cost of running a school.

The EPI analysis was restricted by publicly available data to local-authority run schools in England, but there is evidence that academy trusts, responsible for hundreds of schools, are similarly strapped.

Even the secretary of state concedes that funding is now “tight”. In 2017, £1.3bn of “additional” budget was allocated to schools – to be paid over two years. But that was a fiscal sticking plaster that effectively kept funding per pupil frozen. The money came from elsewhere in the education department budget. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has calculated that, in real terms, the schools budget will have declined by 4.6% in the period 2015-20. Most people would call that a cut. That is how it is experienced by teachers, pupils and parents.

As with the NHS, ministers are fighting a losing battle to sustain a pretence of adequate financing, when evidence on the ground contradicts their story. Also, as with the NHS, the government has been protected from more severe political consequences of the budget squeeze by the goodwill of frontline staff.

That isn’t to say that teachers (or doctors and nurses) are favourably disposed towards the Tories. The opposite seems likelier. But it is in the nature of the work they do that a voluntaristic spirit kicks in to fill gaps in care. The duty to pupils that most teachers feel isn’t pegged to the money they have to work with, and so many endure an unsustainable workload, subsidising the government with investments of their own time to keep the system functioning.

That takes its toll on retention and recruitment. Earlier this year, a parliamentary committee reported that hiring levels have undershot government targets every year for the past five years. Around 10,000 fewer secondary school teachers have been hired than had been the intention.

It has not helped that, alongside financial constraints, teachers have felt systematically undervalued. Michael Gove’s time as education secretary was especially problematic, since he appeared to see the profession as a reactionary “blob” determined to thwart progress. His successors have struck more emollient tones, but the damage has not been undone.

Perhaps the greatest problem for the Tories where education is concerned is that even if direct funding is bolstered, schools still end up on the frontline of austerity. Children suffer when other local authority services disappear. Benefit cuts and the imposition of capricious sanctions on parents hit many of the most vulnerable, which in turn has an impact on the whole classroom. Teachers find themselves working overtime to compensate for a wide spectrum of damage to the social fabric.

In his spring statement earlier this week, Philip Hammond tried to strike a note of cautious optimism over the public finances. The chancellor hinted that the squeeze on services might be eased in his autumn budget. No doubt schools are near the front of the queue for help, just after hospitals. What the Conservatives fail to understand is that the social and cultural impact of austerity is not expressed simply in balance sheets and budget deficits. It is manifest in the degrading of the public realm more widely, the demoralisation of public servants and the destitution of people who rely on public services. That legacy will not quickly be reversed, nor will its political authors be quickly forgiven.



The GuardianTramp

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