Government ‘deluded’ about impact of school cuts, say MPs

There is a “real risk” that the financial squeeze on schools will damage education standards, MPs have warned

CREDIT: This story was first seen in Politics Home

The government expects schools to make efficiency savings worth eight per cent of their budgets by 2019/20, which the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said was the “most significant financial pressure since the mid-1990s”, Politics Home reports.

The MPs said the targets were the latest example of a “collective delusion” within the government about the capacity to cut funding without affecting the quality of public services.

Labour said it was “nothing short of a scandal”, but the government pointed out per pupil spending would be more than 50% higher in 2020 than it was in 2000.

Spending per pupil is set to fall in real terms over the course of this parliament, even as the overall education budget increases, as a result of more pupils attending schools.

To deal with the pressures, schools are expected to make savings worth £3bn by the end of the decade, of which £1.3bn will come from improved procurement and £1.7bn from more efficient use of staff.

But the PAC said the government did not understand the financial constraints schools were already operating under, and warned the Department for Education did not have the oversight in place to intervene in case the staff savings “threaten the quality of education and educational outcomes”.

“The actions schools take are likely to increase teachers’ workload, with implications for recruitment and retention, and put at risk the quality of education,” the report said.

“Staff account for three-quarters of schools’ spending, and savings here will be harder to achieve without detrimental effects on the quality of education and educational outcomes.”

It also questioned whether the government had learned the lessons from imposing “unrealistic targets for efficiency savings” on NHS trusts.

Meg Hillier, the Labour MP who chairs the committee, warned of a “collective delusion in government about the scope for further efficiency savings in public services”.

“Pupils’ futures are at risk if the Department for Education fails to act on the warnings in our report,” she said.

“Unrealistic efficiency targets imposed on the NHS, together with weak leadership from the centre, have caused long-term damage to the finances of NHS trusts struggling to meet increasing demand.

“Government must not allow this to happen in schools but there are troubling similarities in its approach – similarities the Department for Education is unwilling to recognise.

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“It must not be deaf to the experiences of headteachers who, as we heard in evidence, have already had to make potentially damaging cuts in areas such as maintenance, teacher recruitment and pastoral services.”

Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner hit out at the government’s management of the education system.

“The government’s handling of the schools budget is nothing short of a scandal,” she said.

“Ministers clearly don’t have a clue what is going on in our schools, and apparently they haven’t even asked. And while they continue to bury their heads in the sand, our children’s futures are being put at risk.”

Meanwhile, the National Union of Teachers described it as “yet another nail in the coffin of the government’s school funding policy”.

“It is quickly becoming the case that no one other than the prime minister believes that the school system can manage on existing funding, let alone absorb the impact of a new funding formula introduced alongside a cash freeze on school budgets,” said Kevin Courtney, the union’s general secretary.

A Department for Education spokesperson said the government would respond “in due course”.

“Standards in our schools are rising with 1.8 million more pupils being taught in good or outstanding schools than in August 2010. We have protected the core schools budget in real terms since 2010, with school funding at its highest level on record at more than £40bn in 2016-17 – and that is set to rise, as pupil numbers rise over the next two years, to £42bn by 2019-20.

“These protections, and the wider investment in the school system, mean that spending per pupil will be over 50% higher in real terms in 2020 than it was in 2000, as set out by the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies.

“We recognise that schools are facing cost pressures, and we will continue to provide support to help them use their funding in the most cost effective ways, so that every pound of the investment we make in education has the greatest impact. This includes improving the way they buy goods and services, while our recently published School Buying Strategy is designed to help schools save over £1bn a year by 2019-20 on non-staff spend.”

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