More money helps. Now what…?

On Thursday, the Chancellor unexpectedly announced an increase in school budgets amidst the carnage of the Autumn statement. Jeremy Hunt outlined £55 billion of tax rises and spending cuts over the next 5 years. These are roughly 50-50. How much will schools feel the difference and what is the policy direction from DfE now?

Genuinely new money for schools

Adding £2.3 billion for schools in each of the next two years is a significant increase. This amounts to a 4% increase year on year. The Treasury says this equates to an “average cash increase for every pupil of more than £1,000 by 2024-25, compared to 2021-22”. This also, finally, brings schools funding back to 2010 levels in real terms.

£2 billion each year is new money in the system and not recycled from ‘efficiencies’ needing to be found elsewhere. The remaining £300 million each year is money the Treasury will no longer recoup from the reversal of the National Insurance increases. Nonetheless, this shouldn’t detract from the overall picture.

Is it enough?

Absolutely not. Turning back the clock by 12 years should not feel ambitious. Many schools are already in dire financial predicaments. These are driven by the unfunded pay rises, energy costs and wider inflation, increasing SEND needs, and, in areas like London, a severe reduction in pupil numbers.

We don’t know how these pressures will play out in future years.

The funding increase was also a signposted political move to take the wind out of the sails of potential strikes. More widely, FE and Early Years have been left with no increases at all.

But where are we heading?

Gillian Keegan became the fifth new Secretary of State for Education in 6 months only four weeks ago. This is farcical. And recent meetings with the Department for Education seem to reflect the lack of political direction (or more frankly, a sense of chaos) inside DfE too. This soon in, one could forgive the new ministerial team for focusing on the budget negotiations. But there is a policy void.

Nick Gibb is back as Schools Minister. Robert Halfon (previously long-serving Chair of the Education Select Committee who has clashed with Nick Gibb in the role) is the new skills minister. Baroness Barran (who led the Schools Bill’s disastrous passage in the House of Lords) has remained in post throughout the recent reshuffles. As such, there is much greater substance than in previous iterations.

Speaking on Political Thinking with Nick Robinson, Gillian Keegan made the point that the ministerial team are focused on continuity: delivering the policy platform developed over recent years rather than throwing it away and announcing a flashy new agenda.

Some of this we can predict will involve implementing a knowledge-rich curriculum; increasing take-up of EBacc subjects (including the recent announcement on modern foreign languages); T Levels and apprenticeships; and completing the changes to Initial Teacher Training. There are many more of course.

What there isn’t, is a unifying vision or sense of direction.

The Schools Bill and the Green Paper hang in the balance

You might argue direction has clearly been set in the Schools Bill (building on, but crucially not the same as, the schools White Paper) and the SEND and Alternative Provision Green Paper.

Let’s start with the Green Paper. The consultation closed on 22nd July 2022. We are yet to have the formal consultation response from DfE. I understand this work has been moving forward irrespective of the ministerial turnover.

Reviewing and categorising the responses is one thing. The difficult policy and financial choices needed to support a positive direction of travel are quite another. This could be a real positive for DfE if they are able to take real steps forward. But, there is unlikely to be more money on the table after the Autumn Statement.

“The Schools Bill is dead, how shall we live?”

As Nietzsche definitely did not say. The Schools Bill is very unlikely to get back into Parliament before the next general election. Yet, it is worth being clear here (more on this in a separate blog): the Schools Bill is not the White Paper.

The Bill was principally trying to address the specific and thorny issues of how to regulate and intervene in existing academy trusts. This still needs a resolution.

The key announcement everyone took from the White Paper was full academisation by 2030. This does not fall over with the Bill. There may well be a slowdown taking us well beyond 2030, but it is still a one-way direction of travel.

Whatever your views on academisation, continuing a quiet march on this doesn’t amount to an inspiring vision for education.

What is more interesting is whether the wider thrust of the White Paper continues to be implemented and what else is put on the table. The Chancellor has made a clear point of prioritising education by increasing school funding. Now we wait to hear what a more substantial ministerial team aim to achieve.

About the Author:

James Page

James is Chief Executive of HEP. He was previously joint Assistant Director for schools and learning in Haringey Council and has worked in DfE and extensively in central government and consultancy. He is also a parent governor in the Borough.