Here we are again, talking about school funding two weeks after a Budget, as Jo Platt rightly mentioned.
Do not get me wrong, as a Lib Dem I love my potholes—believe me I do—but I think schools deserve more money than potholes. It was absolutely not the right priority that schools got only £400 million in the Budget, less than potholes. [Interruption.] Indeed, Lib Dems pointing at potholes—my dear favourite. But I would much rather have been pointing at a new school boiler or putting my arm around a teaching assistant who did not have to be let go.
That is why the “little extras” comment was so badly judged. I assume the Chancellor’s speech was not run past the Secretary of State for Education. If it was, I am shocked that his special adviser did not spot it. When I heard the comment, I tensed up inside, because I could hear the teachers in my constituency shouting, “Well, what about every time I reach into my own pocket to pay for pens and paper for the students in my school?”
I am a primary school governor at Botley School, and school governors are now having to make decisions about staffing—the system is at breaking point. They have already downgraded middle management and had reorganisations. In Botley we had to submit a deficit budget, as part of which we had to say that we were going to have some kind of reorganisation. In the end, all that does is put extra stress on the current teachers.
Forest School training has been cut or pared down in a number of schools in my constituency. People who have been to Forest School, perhaps as children, will know just how extraordinary that experience is—I wish I had had it—but that is being cut.
Ofsted has also pointed out in various studies that there is now a narrowing of the curriculum as a result of the cuts, and it is not just the EBacc. Amanda Spielman made it clear in a letter to the Public Accounts Committee just last week that that narrowing of the curriculum is real, that Ofsted has seen it and is very concerned about it.
Teachers across the country would like to hear from the Government that they are listening. The Government talk about more money than ever for schools. If we go back far enough in history, we will find that there is more money now, but it is also about the pressures on schools, with higher numbers of pupils and extra asks from pensions, national insurance contributions and an apprenticeship levy that really does not work.
There is a local school in Abingdon that is desperate to spend the apprenticeship levy funding. There is a maintenance chap and an IT specialist that the school would love to be able to skill up, but the local college does not provide those particular apprenticeships. Where is the joined-up thinking in this Government? It is just not there.
When I talked to the chair of governors at Larkmead School in Abingdon, he put it most aptly: “Do you know what we need? We do not need stuff. We need staff.” It is staff that schools need. As a former teacher, I can say it is that one-to-one interaction with students that is missing.
This is all happening at a time when local government services have been decimated, and we know that. We are now beginning to see it in schools. I am sure other Members, like me, were shocked by the BBC’s story over the weekend about the number of children being held in isolation rooms for five days or more. This is not happening of its own accord; it is a direct result of the closure of Sure Start centres, of the decimation of youth services and of the fact that children’s services just do not have the resources they need.
Schools are picking up the pieces. I have a school in south Abingdon that has its own food bank, because there are kids who cannot afford to eat when they go home at night. They greatly welcome the meal they get when they are at the food bank, but they cannot get that money.
Oxfordshire County Council is now running a consultation to top-slice some of the core schools budget and feed it into SEND provision—I have heard this from other Members from across the House. I am so sad that it should have to do this—it should not have to. Oxfordshire is one of the f40 areas of the country. As for fairer funding, I simply wish that the Government had gone the whole hog and decided to make it properly fair, because the historical unfairness in the system remains. Interestingly, the amount of money that Larkmead School would lose is about £50,000, which is exactly the sum it would have got from the “little extras”. I felt that irony keenly.
There are a couple of things the Government could help schools with. If schools want to be run as businesses, they need some level of medium-term clarity. The two issues that keep coming up at the moment are the pay award for staff and the administration of teachers’ pensions. By the way, the pay award for support staff has not been announced yet, so when will it be? Schools have to submit three-year budgets, yet they do not know where that money is going to come from. If we are serious about properly funding our schools, where is the clarity on the budget, what is going to come out of the spending review and when will this Government finally put education first? Let’s face it, there is no better investment in this country’s future than investment in education.