Patrick Murphy (personal capacity)
On Friday August 30th the Tory government announced an increase in funding for schools over the next 3 years. They spun it as a £14bn increase and Boris Johnson boasted that this would “make sure every child receives a superb education regardless of which school they attend or where they grew up.” In fact school funding will increase by £7.1bn per year but it will take 3 years to reach that figure with a £2.6bn increase in £2020-1, rising to £4.8bn in 2021-2 and then £7.1bn in 2022-3.
The funding announcement didn’t come in isolation or without political context. It was part of a wider political agenda which included other promises on education as well as other public services. This agenda was launched as part of Johnson’s preparation for a general election just a few days before his outrageous prorogation of Parliament. Plainly he was looking for some good press coverage before launching a major political battle with his opponents, not only in Parliament but in his own party. It is no exaggeration to say that, should he win that battle, the consequence for education, trade unions and working class people in general would be an unmitigated disaster.
In those circumstances the response of the NEU to the funding announcement was, to say the least, very disappointing. If that seems harsh just consider the responses from some of the key players in the education funding debate.
Jules White, the headteacher who launched the Worth Less campaign said schools in England would need to see how much they would receive in real terms before passing judgment. “It is clear, he said, “that the major funding crisis that has blighted schools and post-16 provision is now being taken seriously by the government. But while the government’s headline figure is for £14bn, the actual increase in total spending on schools may be half of this, at £7.1bn. We also need to know how our real-terms spending power will be affected by rising student numbers and other inflationary costs.”
The shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, said: “This comes nowhere close to meeting the prime minister’s pledge to reverse the Tories’ education cuts, let alone matching Labour’s plans to invest in a national education service. Instead it is yet another con trick by a politician who has shown time and again that you just can’t trust his promises.”
In its report of the funding announcement the Guardian spoke to a number of head teachers. They found that they “were wary of the government’s figures, citing previous occasions when funding announcements had been less generous than first presented, and some said the extra cash would not be enough even if delivered as advertised. Some heads suggested that few schools – mainly those concentrated in the most poorly funded regions – would benefit from the minimum funding pledge of £5,000 per secondary pupil and £4,000 per primary pupil. One senior head estimated that only one out of 10 schools would see a significant benefit”.
And this cautious reaction wasn’t restricted to education campaigners. The Insititute for Fiscal Studies said that while the package “represents a large increase in spending per pupil , a 13-year period of no net growth in school spending per pupil, after inflation, still represents a significant squeeze on school budgets when considered in historical terms.”
There is little or no comfort for the government in any of those responses. The Johnson government had to be disappointed at the lack of enthusiasm for their much-heralded pledges. They could take a lot more comfort, however, from the response of the NEU. Our press statement described the announcement as ‘very positive’ and the most critical note struck was, in many ways, a backhanded compliment. The government’s statement should, the NEU said, have “come with a note of apology”. An apology is what you do when you are admitting fault and agreeing to put it right. The government were doing neither.
The other responses made most of the key points about the limits and uncertainties around this funding pledge. In addition there was a need to highlight Johnson’s promise that funding would be “be levelled up across the entire country”. The real meaning of that is that the main beneficiaries of this injection of money will be affluent areas where the Tories electoral prospects are most at risk. In light of the linked announcement about behaviour and exclusions more money will also be spent on paying mainly private providers to take the increased number of pupils who will be excluded from mainstream schools. On top of all that we know it to be the case that large amounts of the additional funding will be used to boost the lagging academy and free school programmes.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to encourage activists and campaigners who have worked to put school funding at the top of the political agenda. In a message to union members that is entirely appropriate. Even then it would be important to dispel illusions and keep them alert to the need for further campaigning. In publicly reacting to an election gimmick from a hostile and deeply untrustworthy government desperate for positive headlines the priorities are, and must be, different.
Last week the Union published a different and better response with the strapline ‘It’s a start but not enough’. This time what stood out was the rebuttal of Johnson’s main claims. In particular the facts that
“Not every school will see a real terms rise.
Schools will not see any extra money until at least April 2020.
The Government has said they are delivering a minimum of £5,000 per secondary pupil. This is not true. Many schools will receive less than this.”
That should surely have been the first response of our union to this election gimmick. We are part of a broader trade union and labour movement facing one of the most right-wing governments in our history. They are currently trapped in a situation where the only way out is a general election in which they present themselves as born-again champions of key public services. In reacting to ‘concessions’ from a government under such pressure, our first duty is to give them no assistance in promoting that message.