School cuts can be beaten with a strategy to win
James Kerr, Lewisham NUT (personal capacity)
Our children’s education is under the greatest threat for more than a generation and an equally powerful response is needed. In the next couple of months, as schools begin to confirm their budgets and timetables for next year, we will more clearly see the scale of proposed school cuts.
Unless defeated, they could amount to a £3 billion reduction by 2019-20, as confirmed by the National Audit Office (NAO).
As a London secondary school teacher, I have seen the importance of funding in improving educational practice and catering to many students’ needs. The improvements in London schools over the last couple of decades can be credited to many sources but funding undoubtedly had a key role to play.
Take one scheme, ‘The London Challenge’ – lauded by Ofsted (the government’s schools’ inspectorate) – which provided peer support for schools. It cost £80 million over its eight year lifetime up until 2008. Much of the good work done in that period will be undone by a funding reduction.
Of course there is money for some in education; Edexcel, one of the exam boards, posted a £67 million profit in a 12 month period; and the £395,000 basic salary of the chief executive officer of the Harris Federation would make the eyes of most public sector workers water.
The Tories’ mantra, wheeled out in robotic fashion, is that they’ve protected funding. However, the costs for schools and student numbers have risen, meaning there will be less money per pupil.
When accused of breaking the Tory manifesto pledge to maintain per-pupil funding, Theresa May’s warm words became hot air: “What matters for all of us who are concerned about education in this country is that we ensure the quality of education provided for our children is a quality that enables them to get on in life and have a better future. That is what this government is about.”
However, when we think of “quality” any teacher will be able to regale you with stories of the impact of cuts; school counsellors replaced by online advice, families asked to make financial contributions to pay for resources; sports days cancelled or children with special educational needs left without support. A government-funded breakfast club programme has over 300 schools on its waiting list already because of the funding squeeze.
Many schools are already in deficit and redundancies have been announced, including at large academy trusts.
It will continue to fuel a huge teacher recruitment and retention crisis as workloads become unsustainable. One in ten teachers left the profession in a 12 month period and the pressure from cuts will add to the exodus.
And the stress of teaching under conditions of austerity has resulted in the suicide rate among primary school teachers in England being nearly twice as high as average.
Local campaigns are being built all over the country with the change to the National Funding Formula being a particular focal point. The government sells the new formula as a ‘levelling of the playing field’ but the reality is that 98% of schools will lose out with inner city schools hit hardest. There is no doubt that support needs to be provided for rural areas and seaside towns but why can’t there be a levelling up of all schools?
The change will compound the pressures on schools applied by a rise in national insurance and pension costs. These local campaigns need to be linked up into a national movement with the education trade unions at its core and a strategy combining parent and student protest with industrial action.
We cannot wait though, some schools are already plunged into dramatic battles to defend jobs and courses. The NAO showed that 60% of secondary schools already had to spend more than their income in 2014-15. That position has only got worse.
Forest Hill school picket line 21 March photo Lewisham Socialist Party, photo Lewisham Socialist Party (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)
Forest Hill School in Lewisham has a £1.3 million deficit and could see 15 redundancies this year alone. Staff have already taken three days of strike action with more planned for after the holiday. A school like Forest Hill will need serious governmental funding to protect the quality of education in the long term, but there is a role to play for the local council too.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was correct to recently highlight the National Health Service and education as key areas for Labour to campaign on.
His policy of all primary school children being eligible for a free school meal has been applauded by many. He must go further in mapping out a plan for education which will see cuts and privatisation reversed.
He can also act now to offer support for the campaigns of teachers, parents and students by exploring how Labour councils and mayors can use their positions as tribunes for these movements.
In Lewisham, south London, it is the Labour council which the campaign is focused on, to get them to honour their obligations to the school, including on redundancy payments and to explore all means to support what is still a local authority school.
Schools are legally allowed to run a licensed deficit, not enough on its own but a useful tool to buy time while there is a campaign for more money.
Neighbouring Greenwich council recently spread the deficit repayments for one of its schools from five to seven years. It won’t stop all cuts but will relieve some pressure.
There is clearly money available when it suits political leaders. Some schools have had debts written-off by local authorities in the process of academy conversion. If money can be found to pave the way for privatisation, why not in protecting all schools?
Another area which the campaign movement must look at is the effect of rip-off Private Finance Initiative (PFI) schemes on the schools’ budget.
Forest Hill School pays a staggering £1 million a year to the shareholders of its PFI contract. We ask: Should we pay for our children’s education or to bloat shareholder profits?
An astonishing £209 billion will be spent on paying PFI debt across the public sector in the next 35 years, while government-imposed austerity continues. This is a scandal and cannot go unchallenged. Contracts should be renegotiated and ripped up, if necessary, to remove the boot from the neck of our schools.
There is no single blueprint for how this campaign develops and many avenues will be explored in building this movement. What we do know is that the education unions will play a key role.
The heroic strikes of Derby and Durham teaching assistants show a gritty resolve to resist attacks. The National Union of Teachers still has a live ballot for discontinuous national strike action which will run out in the summer. A strike in the summer term, combined with the building of a national demonstration, could complement the local action.
The embattled Tory government is vulnerable on school funding, with even some of their own council leaders sounding the alarm. However, they will not crumble of their own accord, it is necessary for us to drive the wedge in.
- No to all cuts – level funding up, not down
- Fund children’s education, not PFI private profit
- Organise campaigns in every area uniting teachers, support staff, parents, students and the community
- Defend state education – for a fully funded, democratically run, genuinely comprehensive education system
- For a trade union-led national demonstration in defence of education
- End austerity – fight for a socialist society run in the interests of the 99%
- Join the march and rally for Forest Hill School on Saturday 22 April at Mountsfield Park, Catford at 11.30am, finishing at Mayow Park, Forest Hill, London, SE26