Covid-19: Financial Implications for Schools — [Stewart Hosie in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:02 pm on 7th October 2020.

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Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Shadow Minister (International Trade) 4:02 pm, 7th October 2020

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the financial implications of covid-19 for schools.

I am grateful to Mr Speaker for giving me the opportunity to raise an issue of considerable importance to my constituents and, I suspect, constituents across England. Schools in Harrow and across the country are facing a very tough financial year because of their extra covid costs. I say gently to the Minister that Ministers are not yet doing enough to help.

Harrow is blessed with a very strong state sector, with generally excellent primary and secondary schools, as well as a strong sixth-form college and good further education provision. The schools work together extremely well and the quality of Harrow’s schools remains a central attractive part of the borough’s offer to families with children.

I pay particular tribute to Harrow’s headteachers. They are a remarkable group of very talented leaders and generally have very strong staff teams in their schools. Since the beginning of this term, students from 12 schools have had to self-isolate, but in general the return to school has gone relatively well.

I am a former pupil of two Harrow schools and am now a parent of a child at one, and I have many friends whose children are either at or have been at Harrow schools. What happens in the borough’s schools and their funding is a lively concern in the many conversations that I have as a constituency MP. Talking to headteachers and others involved in the financial governance of our schools, I am concerned, first, about the funding difficulties that covid is causing our schools; secondly, about the limited financial support the Government have so far offered; and, thirdly, about the difficult financial backdrop faced by schools, even before coronavirus became an issue. I am also concerned about the increased difficulties that covid is causing those children with special needs; the mental health challenges facing our young people, which are being exacerbated as a result of covid; and what the feared increase in child poverty will mean for schools and their finances.

One of the many excellent high schools in my constituency expects to incur, over 12 months, approximately £175,000 in extra costs due to covid. Extra cleaning, extra teaching cover, longer hours needed for support staff, additional essential supplies, such as personal protective equipment and sanitiser, and significant digital investment—for example, in laptops to ensure that students can study at home in the event of closure, partial closure, self-isolation and so on—are just some examples of things that have created extra costs. Also, the school has suffered a significant loss in income in relation to a lot of community clubs—for example, football clubs—to language schools and to simply the use of buildings for event hire. That is lost income that the school would have invested in education for its pupils. To be fair, that high school has received some funding from the Department to cover cleaning costs, and funding equivalent to two teachers from the catch-up fund, which will, according to the headteacher, help just with years 10 and 11.

One large primary school, which is fairly typical of the borough, has incurred more than £60,000 in extra costs just over the last—summer—term. Again, the school has faced significant costs for additional staffing to cover lessons where teachers or teaching assistants have been shielding, and for site staff and office staff overtime to prepare for the reopening of the school. School lunchtimes are costing more because of the need for disposable cutlery and packaging, and, given the staggered lunchtime arrangements required, there are, again, extra staffing costs.

Two primary schools have seen the need for significant extra IT investment. Similarly, they have had extra cleaning costs and they have seen significant losses of income, as their premises cannot be hired out. Some schools in Harrow and, indeed, across the country are also trying to maintain wraparound care—even as external providers can no longer do so—in order to help parents who otherwise would struggle to keep working.

The spending review announcement will not leave Harrow schools much better off. The so-called funding increases are largely just recycling the pay and pension awards, which used to be funded separately. I understand specifically that pay and pension increases from last month are not funded, costing the average high school in the borough between £150,000 and £200,000, and the average primary school more than £50,000. Changes to the school funding formula for deprivation have hit Harrow schools very hard, because for some reason we are now classified as a less deprived area. The consequent loss of funding meant that Harrow schools did not get anywhere near the 4% funding increase announced nationally for 2020-21. It is difficult, therefore, to see how the funding settlement for Harrow schools—welcome as any increase always is—goes anywhere near addressing the real-terms cuts in school spending over the last 10 years.

On the national picture, as I alluded to, I recognise that the Department for Education has provided some additional funding for schools facing, in Ministers’ words, “exceptional costs”. However, there are limits on the amount of costs that will be recompensed, and no consideration is given to the loss of often crucial lettings income.

The National Foundation for Educational Research set out in September the scale of the educational and financial challenges facing schools, based on interviews with almost 3,000 school leaders and teachers across more than 2,200 primary and secondary schools in England. The NFER pointed out that nearly all teachers estimate that their pupils are behind in their curriculum learning, with the average estimate being that they are three months behind. Teachers in the most deprived schools were more than three times more likely to report that their pupils were four months or more behind in their curriculum learning than teachers in the least deprived areas. Indeed, more than half of all teachers thought that the learning gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers had widened.

The report notes the difficulties in teaching remotely, with more than one quarter of pupils having limited or no access to IT at home—a particular challenge for schools serving the most deprived areas. Across the piece, almost 50% of teachers thought that their pupils needed intensive catch-up help, with the figure being even higher in the most deprived schools and in areas serving the highest proportion of pupils from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, such as schools in my constituency. The report notes the need for additional IT equipment. Senior leaders have been particularly aware of the need for improved IT, with the limitations of school IT systems hindering their ability to communicate with pupils, parents and, indeed, staff.

The NFER went on to suggest that some primary schools could need up to an estimated £280,000 a year and that an average secondary school could need up to an estimated £720,600 in order to operate in line with the Government’s requirements. I should underline that these estimates are based on talking to senior leaders who were concerned about their ability to provide a full and comprehensive service to their pupils from the beginning of last month.

The NFER acknowledges the funding that the Government have provided for cleaning costs, the catch-up funding and the IT funding, but it says, in its traditionally understated way:

“Nevertheless…there is still likely to be a need for additional funding beyond the current government offer.”

The Institute for Fiscal Studies annual report on school funding, which was also published just last month, is also striking. The IFS is arguably the most independent and respected group of analysts in the UK, and it reported that larger funding costs for schools in poor areas have left them badly placed to deal with all the challenges that covid-19 has thrown up. The IFS notes the obvious widening of educational inequalities over lockdown and highlights the particularly tough challenges faced by schools serving more deprived pupils over the next few years, with planned increases in teachers’ starting salaries—welcome as they are in their own right—likely to weigh even more heavily on their budgets because they are more likely to have to employ new teachers.

The IFS describes the post-lockdown funding support for schools as “modest”, and goes on specifically to say:

“Faster falls in spending per pupil over the last decade, slower increases under the National Funding Formula…widening of educational inequalities…all provide a case for greater targeting of funding to more deprived schools.”

The IFS also notes:

“School spending per pupil in England fell by 9% in real terms between 2009-10 and 2019-20”,

describing it as

“the largest cut in over 40 years”,

compared with the

“increase in spending per pupil of over 60%” during the period of the last Labour Government.

The IFS goes on to acknowledge the 2019 spending review announcement for day-to-day spending on schools in England through to 2022-23. It notes that, using school-specific inflation, the expected growth in spending per pupil between 2019-20 and 2022-23 would leave spending per pupil about 3% in real terms below its 2009-10 level, which will still be the biggest squeeze on school resources since the 1970s.

The IFS further notes the lower increases in formula allocations for schools in poorer areas, which

“run counter to the objective”— that is, the objective of the Government, apparently—

“of using school funding to ‘level up’
poorer regions.”

Echoing the NFER report, the IFS says that this could

“pose additional challenges for deprived schools seeking to help pupils catch up after the closure of schools during the pandemic.”

The IFS goes into some detail on the different aspects of the Government support, in particular describing the national tutoring programme as offering a level of support that is “low” when compared with the scale of likely lost learning.

The Minister will also know that there is particular concern about children with special needs, with almost one fifth of them, according to Government figures, off school due to the problems that schools face in managing infection control, timetables and transport difficulties. There is a particular problem, which the media have covered, in providing access to education for children with a tracheostomy, or who require what is called oral suctioning to clear their airways. Public Health England rules state that schools must ensure that they are suctioned in separate ventilated and sanitised rooms by staff wearing full protective gear. Many schools are simply unable to comply with those rules. It would be helpful to hear from the Minister—if not today, then soon—what specific steps his Department has taken to address that issue.

There are broader issues about funding for children with special needs. The Children’s Commissioner has noted specifically that the problem of access to mainstream schooling for children with special educational needs was showing up long before lockdown. None of the disruption of this year has helped to change that picture.

Many local authorities, struggling with years of austerity cuts, are still often finding it difficult to provide appropriate placements, and children with special needs are missing out in many cases on their education, putting their parents under enormous pressure to pick up the pieces. Research commissioned by the Local Government Association acknowledges the extra funding that the Government have provided for special educational needs in this comprehensive spending review period, but it estimates that councils still face a high-needs shortfall of at least £889 million. It would be good to hear from the Minister whether there will be further sustained investment in special educational needs provision by Ministers over the course of the next spending review.

Similarly, it would be helpful to hear what further support Ministers are providing for investment in mental health services to which schools can have access. Various charities have highlighted the increased feelings of isolation and loneliness during lockdown for many young people. Again, the Children’s Commissioner has articulated the greater threats of domestic abuse, online grooming and other threats that children faced during lockdown, few of which would have been picked up by teachers during that period, and for which children now require support.

The final thing I want to mention in terms of the financial implications that covid has for schools is child poverty. Research by the Institute for Public Policy Research suggests that covid threatens to push up to another 200,000 more children into poverty by the end of the year. That is on top of the 4.2 million children trapped in poverty already. As unions such as the National Education Union have highlighted, child poverty is already putting pressure on school budgets, with schools funding extra breakfast and holiday clubs, providing and washing children’s clothing, and supplying children with essential equipment that they need to learn.

I acknowledge the Government’s investment in digital equipment and the expansion of free school meals to cover school holidays at Easter and over the summer period but, given the expected rise in unemployment and the associated rise in child poverty that I fear is inevitable, it would be helpful if Ministers would confirm whether similar free school meal provision can be made this half term, and in the holidays at Christmas and next year, particularly while the covid pandemic is still having an impact.

What further investment will Ministers make to tackle the digital poverty that is likely to hold young people back if they still do not have access to laptops, tablets or other such equipment? Will Ministers consider providing free household internet access to children and young people in households on universal credit?

I am grateful for helpful briefings from the National Association of Head Teachers, NASUWT, the Local Government Association, the National Education Union and, of course, schools in my constituency, and my local authority. Schools face a difficult financial challenge in the coming months, and none more than those in my borough. Ministers need to extend funding to cover covid costs and to recognise that sustained investment is needed in areas of deprivation and special needs. Further investment will be required in mental health services, and rising child poverty will have a further significant impact on schools and their finances.