The political debate on school and college funding

19 Jun 2019

Some of the candidates for leadership of the Conservative party have made statements on school and college funding which may or may not prove to be helpful. This contest is, in effect, the race to the next Prime Minister and whoever wins will want to make an impact on public spending particularly as they may well be an election looming.

This note from the Institute for Fiscal Studies makes some interesting points - though also misses some:

  • IFS calculate substantial figures for reversing the real-terms cuts in school funding in recent years (between £1.8 and £3.8 billion) but also draw attention to the costs of demographic growth which will require £1 billion between 2019-20 and 2022-3.
  • iFS discuss the 4% real-terms cut in school funding between 2015 and 2017 (the Cameron/Osborne years) but do not mention that Treasury and DfE has ensured that average per pupil funding keeps up with inflation in the years since (the May years). In two successive notes on school costs, DfE explain that funding per pupil from the schools and high need block have risen by 3.6% in 2018-9 and 3.1% in 2017-8. The comparable 16-18 figures have been no increase in funding per student.
  • given the current economic and political climate, increases measured in the billions sound like a lot but it is worth noting that the total amount in the Dedicated Schools Grant schools block has risen by £4 billion in the nine years between 2010-11 and 2019-20(from £30.4 billion to £34.5 billion) on top of which schools have benefited from the £2 billion pupil premium.
  • IFS helpfully remind readers not to forget further education. Over this decade the 16-to-18 education budget has fallen in cash terms by £1 billion (from £6.7 billion to £5.7 billion). However IFS repeat a figure on the real-terms cut in funding per student which is now out-of-date. IFS calculated a 8% real-terms cut in 16-to-18 funding since the start of the decade but the Education Policy Institute (EPI)'s more precise assessment (in a report on 16-18 funding) is that there has been a 16% real-terms reduction between 2009-10 and 2018-9.
  • EPI assess that average funding per 16-to-18 student was £4,900 in 2018-9 with funding per student varying from £4,430 per sixth form college student to £5,320 per FE college student. The wide variations result from the fact that funding is directed towards disadvantaged students, those taking more expensive technical courses and those who do not have grade 4 maths and English. Given IFS's separate calculation that secondary school funding per pupil averages £6,200 a pupil, this confirms the very wide gap between pre-16 and post-16 funding per student which results in shorter teaching hours, lower teacher pay and fewer resources for students.
  • Politics is not just about Conservative policy. Labour's 2017 manifesto promised to equalise the Key Stage 4 (14-16) and Key Stage 5 (16-17) base rates (£4,000 and £4,300 at that time) and extend the pupil premium to 16-to-18 year olds as part of an FE  package ("free tuition, equalise 16-19 funding, restore EMAs") which they costed at £2.5 billion. Two more years of austerity means that the costs of these promises (if they don't change) might now be higher. The Lib Dems are generally positive on education spending. The Brexit party does not yet have a policy position on education.

It should be helpful if politicians and the public understand that the education system is under great financial pressure. The 2019-20 budget round for colleges is harder than ever as this note explains.