Ministers fail to grasp importance of school cuts

Meg Hillier, chairman of the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee.
Meg Hillier, chairman of the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee.
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MINISTERS have been accused of failing to grasp the impact that Government funding cuts are having on the nation’s schools, as an influential group of MPs warns that demands for ever-more savings are putting children’s futures at risk.

In its latest scathing report, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) claims that the combination of real-terms cuts to school budgets and the additional cost of implementing the Government’s education reforms means schools face a £3bn shortfall by the end of this Parliament.

These challenges come as teachers across the country are already making “damaging cuts” to staffing levels - as well as school maintenance budgets and equipment - in order to cope with the most “significant” financial squeeze they have encountered since the mid-1990s.

And the committee warns that unless the Government is prepared to intervene, schools across England could start seeing a decline in standards.

“Grand plans drawn up in Whitehall are dangerous if they are implemented without regard to real-world consequences,” said PAC chairman Meg Hillier.

“The Government must take all necessary steps to ensure it can intervene quickly if action taken by schools to meet efficiency targets risks damaging standards.

“[Ministers] must not be deaf to the experiences of head teachers who... have already had to make potentially damaging cuts in areas such as maintenance, teacher recruitment and pastoral services.

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

The damning findings coincide with a new report from the Rural Services Network which claims that the Education Secretary’s plans for schools funding reforms risk perpetuating existing regional inequalities.

The organisation suggests that too much emphasis on factors such as pupil need rather than base-line funding for schools means that changes will create new “inconsistencies” between local authority areas, rather than reducing them.

A DfE consultation on the reforms closed last week, but it is understood that the current proposals -which would see Yorkshire receive an additional £100m a year - face strong opposition from backbench Tory MPs.

The RSN is calling for a “substantial revision” of these plans in favour of a formula that allocates “the same funding for all mainstream pupils nationally”.

Chief executive Graham Biggs said: “Schools in low funded areas have inevitably had to prioritise meeting their core costs and have struggled to improve outcomes for vulnerable pupils as a consequence of the unfair funding formula.

“The government’s proposals fall short of what was expected [and] will not deliver true fairness.”

The DfE has repeatedly stated that it is spending more than ever on schools.

Responding to the PAC report, a department spokesman said: “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.”