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Of course more money for schools will always be welcome – but promises that the latest funding pledge will lead to ‘levelling up’ are predictably hollow, says Fiona Millar...
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Perhaps the most tiresome feature of any election campaign, especially one which has already started and could run for months, is the tedious repetition of supposedly punchy campaign slogans, all of which are given booster rockets by the simplicity of social media hashtags. I give you ‘strong and stable’ and ‘weak and dithering’ as recent examples.
My current fixation is the catch all but meaningless ‘levelling up’ in relation to the recent ‘£14bn’ education spending pledge that turned out not to be £14 billion at all as it involved sneaky triple counting and actually amounts to an extra £4.3 billion in real terms for schools by 2022-23.
According to the Prime Minister that money will be used to level up. But level up to what?
The Institute for Fiscal Studies states that the funding boost amounts to a 7.4 % increase on today’s spend, but school funding has dropped 8% overall since the coalition government came to power in 2010, so ‘levelling up’ takes us back to where we were 10 years ago.
And much has happened since then. Costs like pensions and NI payments have shot up, there are 700,000 more pupils in the school system, fewer teachers, and new qualifications.
Class sizes have risen, schools have been obliged to adjust their subject offers and, too rarely spoken about, capital funding is around 40% less than it was in 2010.
Local authority funding has also been hit harder than school budgets, eviscerating many of the services that are essential to help the neediest students thrive and stay safe.
Levelling up to the past ignores what might have been. Imagine for a moment that funding had continued to rise at the rate it did before 2010 – 5% a year no less. Where might we have been then and can we be compensated for that too, please? Even a more modest annual rise would have offset some of the damage done.
Then there is the PM’s equally vacuous suggestion that he wants to guarantee every child “a superb education”. What does this mean? We could start from the assumption that it means an education similar to his own (at Eton College) now priced at around £42K a year.
Of course, that’s a bit unfair, since Eton is a boarding school. But if we were to compare my local private secondary schools with the state equivalents my children went to, you would find plenty of scope for ‘levelling up’ – around £15,000 per pupil per year to be precise. We will happily accept that offer whenever the PM is ready.
In fact, the more prosaic, but not unimportant, interpretation of ‘levelling up’ is that it is intended to close the gap between the best and worst funded local authorities.
This inequality should of course be rectified. But reading the small print, the pledge seems to be a minimum funding guarantee of £5000 per secondary pupil, up from £4,800, and a £4,000 minimum per primary pupil , up from £3,500.
I am sure those schools won’t knock the increased funding, but differentials will still exist, there will still be different per pupil funding between schools in the same council areas due to complex local formulae.
And growing pupil numbers will still have to be paid for. So, it remains to be seen how much schools will really feel much difference.
One of the problems with school funding is that spending spikes come and go, they get grafted onto existing inequalities and are never based on trying to understand what it costs to give every child the superb education that the PM claims to want, or how we really compensate for the different challenges faced by children from vastly different needs.
We can’t knock any extra money at the moment. But whenever you hear that phrase ‘levelling up’, know it lacks meaning – and that we could do so much better.
Fiona Millar is a columnist for Guardian Education and a co-founder of the Local Schools Network. Her latest book The Best For My Child: Did the Market Deliver? is published by John Catt Educational (£14).
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