Are school underfunded? To politicians the question is probably more one of, ‘do parents perceive schools as being underfunded and will that affect how they vote?’ Despite a campaign ahead of the 2017 general election on this topic, my sense was that education wasn’t a major topic during that election. Would it be now? Has the growing campaign by some schools to ask parents for cash to fund their running costs pushed the issue up the political agenda for any post-Brexit era?
My genuine answer is that I am not sure. We have been here before. As this blog has pointed out in the past, the post-1979 period was one of financial hardship for public services that last through most of the 1980s. Indeed, I have looked back at my 1986 book on ‘Schools in London’s Commuterland’ to find that even then some schools in Surrey were asking parents for sum like £5 per term or £14 for new pupils.
Throughout the early 1990s the Liberal Democrats had a well-known policy of ‘1p on Income Tax for education’. The policy attracted voters, and was based upon a feeling that schools were under-funded. Could it be revived on the basis that the government has pledged more cash for the NHS, but not for education, and it seems likely that the present financial support from the public purse will not be sufficient to fund increases in all public services at present levels of taxation.
The alternative to public funding, schools going cap in hand to parents, lacks any real support for a social justice agenda. Parents in my Division in North Oxford, where I am the county councillor, can certainly afford to part with a small sum from their disposable income for the school their child attends. The same isn’t true for many other parts of the city, where parents live on much narrow margins between income and expenditure.
If you believe, as I do, in the philosophy that a state education system should provide a standard of education necessary to create a high level of outcomes for all pupils, encouraging parents to pay towards a school’s funds creates an unfair advantage for those with the cash to help.
The funding debate is often mentioned in relation to the issue of staffing. Ever since schools gained control of their budgets in the 1990s, head teachers and governing bodies have been free to decide how to reward teachers in a system where central direction and control has become increasingly weaker.
Few now understand that the Group Size of a school once controlled not only the head teacher’s salary, but also the number of promoted posts a school could deploy. As a result, since school control of budgets came into force, the government has only ever funded schools on the average cost of a teachers: schools with lots of young teachers often did well, but those with lots of teachers on the top of the pay spine and with TLRs had a salary bill in excess of what their funding would be each year. Should these schools be allowed to top up their funding from parents? Then there is the question of reserves. Any parent asked for cash should require the school to display their latest set of accounts so the actual financial position can be determined. Finally, ought there to be benchmarks in terms of issues such as pupil-teacher ratios and class sizes that identify funding levels. But, there is still the issue of how to compensate for the fact that older more experienced teachers cost more than younger less experienced ones?
One solution is to even out the costs by increasing the CPD allocation to young teachers so the actual cost of a teacher to a school is the same wherever they are in their career.