In the week that the Minister of State at the DfE announced the final figures for the Pupil Premium in 2013-14, with a £53 Christmas bonus for primary school pupils receiving the cash this year, and an increase to £1,300 for primary age pupils in 2014-15, the government also announced the latest thinking on school rolls until the early 2020s.
At the present time, there is still no end in sight to the growth in the primary school population that will increase from a low point in 2009 of 3.9 million pupils to a predicted 4.8 million by 2022. That is a rise of nearly 850,000 pupils, or an increase in the primary school population of more than a fifth in thirteen years. The secondary school population in years 7-11 is still on schedule to bottom out in 2015, at just over 2.7 million pupils, before recovering to just over 3.0 million by 2022, with more increases to come in the rest of that decade.
An extra million or so pupils by 2022 will place considerable strain on education finances that currently cost the nation £27 billion just for the remaining local authority maintained schools, with the costs of academies in addition. (Academies have a different financial year to local authority schools thus making comparisons almost impossible.) In 2012-13 the average cost of a primary school pupil in a maintained school was £4,193, up from £4,099 the previous year. On that basis, the additional 600,000 pupils expected in the primary sector by 2022 will cost £2.5 billion by 2022, even without the compounding effects of inflation during the intervening years. It is difficult to see how the government will be able to protect school budgets throughout the whole of that period since an economic recovery rarely lasts for a decade, and a more likely scenario is that the economy will have traversed through another whole economic cycle during that period. Hopefully, the downturn will not be of the same magnitude as was inflicted on the economy during the Labour government under Gordon Brown’s stewardship.
With around half of primary school expenditure going on teaching staff, and recruitment pressures already emerging, according to the teacher associations, sorting out the wages bill may become even more important in the future if expenditure is not to spiral out of control. However, after so many years of pay restraint that may be easier said than done. The imposition of any national funding formula for schools in 2015 that doesn’t take account of differing labour market pressures is probably doomed to failure, with some potentially dramatic repercussions if the government miscalculates. It will not be enough to say that the decision can be left to schools, as they are too diverse a group to be able to manage any substantial pressures on what amounts to half their budgets.
Mr Gove has not shown himself very good with numbers, but he will surely not want his legacy to be a school system not prepared for the financial challenges that lie ahead.