THE Education Committee’s inquiry on school and college funding has sought to bring together two seemingly irreconcilable views of the world.
The first view is that schools are seeing year-on-year funding reductions and, having largely exhausted non-staff savings through efficiencies, are increasingly moving to the bulk of their budget, which is spent on staff, to find savings.
The second view is that, amid the challenging public finances of 2010, difficult decisions were made that saw the core schools budget protected over the lifetime of that Parliament.
Of course the Government has a sense of the public finances, but so do schools, teachers and parents with whom we are in almost constant communication.
I visit schools every week and am well aware of the funding pressures they face.
I am pleased that, with the emergence of a strong and independent evidence base provided by the National Audit Office, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Education Policy Institute, among others, the additional cost pressures faced by schools and the effect of rising pupil numbers are now understood and accepted as fact.
The 2015 Spending Review missed a real opportunity by failing to anticipate the pressures that schools face and by not seeing the importance of transitional funding to support the implementation of the national funding formula.
Throughout our inquiry, we have been told that the school funding picture is much more complex than a simple question of inputs and outputs.
Andreas Schleicher, from the the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, explained how increasing education expenditure does not necessarily lead to greater performance, either in productivity or in international surveys.
Pumping huge amounts of money into the school system without a proper plan or programme of reform is unlikely to lead to good results. That has been illustrated throughout our inquiry.
We need to look at the Pupil Premium because its accountability mechanisms seem totally ineffective. Teachers and headteachers have repeatedly told us that the money ends up being spent on matters wider than targeted support for disadvantaged children. What is to be done?
I want Ministers, in the strongest possible terms, to embrace wholeheartedly our proposal to have a 10-year strategic plan for education.
Indeed, I am encouraged by the Minister’s response to the committee at the beginning of the month.
There has to be a shared vision beyond the next election, whenever that might be. The principle of school-based autonomy lay at the heart of policy in 2010.
We have identified some of its limitations, particularly when it comes to governance, financial management and accountability. But autonomy within boundaries is a sound principle from which to start.
A 10-year strategic plan ought to be accompanied by a long-term funding plan.
That funding plan, if not stretching beyond the spending review period, should set clear expectations for what it would cost to fund schools and colleges to do their jobs.
The NHS now has a long-term, 10-year strategic plan and a five-year funding settlement, which has come about following serious advocacy by NHS England and by the previous and current Health Secretaries, who strongly made the case both for more funding and for funding accompanied by proper reform.
It mystifies me that perhaps the most important public service of all, education and skills, does not seem to receive the same attention or public advocacy for a similar path.
I have said in the Education Committee that the Department for Education is sometimes like the cardinals at the Vatican in its negotiations with the Treasury, hoping that a bit of white funding smoke may appear from the rooftops, but, as the NHS argument has shown, this is not the right approach.
I very much hope the Department will negotiate a 10-year plan with the Treasury and come to the House of Commons, as the Health Secretary did, to set it out.
We need a proper funding settlement lasting at least five years, just as the National Health Service has had, so we can stop having these day-to-day battles on the finances of schools and further education colleges and so that our wonderful teachers can carry on teaching and our children can carry on learning.
Robert Halfon is a Tory MP and chair of Parliament’s Education Committee. He spoke in a debate on school funding – this is an edited version.