A second letter to Justine Greening, MP, Secretary of State for Education, arguing for increased funding for Primary Schools

(In response to my first letter to Justine Greening MP, Secretary of State for Education, I received a reply informing me that the new National Funding Formula would protect funding for all schools, and raise funding for more than half of them. In reality, pressures from inflation, rising National Insurance and Pension liabilities and other factors mean that 98% of schools will lose funding in real terms. This is my reply to Ms. Greening arguing for more meaningful action to fund our schools properly so that they can prepare our children to face a future in a society that is changing significantly)

Dear Ms. Greening,

Thankyou for the letter I received from Michelle Boyes in your department in response to my letter to you dated 25th January.

I understand that your colleague Nick Gibb, Minister of State for School Standards, provided a similar response to Roger Godsiff MP who represents the Birmingham Hall Green Constituency in which I live. Mr. Godsiff had written to Mr. Gibb to raise similar concerns on behalf of all of the schools in his Constituency.

I will respond in detail to the Stage 2 Consultation on the National Funding Formula as advised by Ms. Boyes, and as Mr. Godsiff was advised by Mr. Gibb.

However, I do not believe that either Ms. Boyes letter to me or Mr. Gibb’s letter to Mr. Godsiff address any of the issues or evidence that we have presented.

The proposed National Funding Formula simply fails to achieve your stated aspirations for Education in the United Kingdom:

“This Government is committed to creating a country that works for everyone. No matter where they live, whatever their background, ability or need, children should have access to an excellent education that unlocks talent and creates opportunity. We want all children to reach their full potential and to succeed in adult life.”

– from your Foreword to “Schools and high needs national funding formulae: Executive summary

As has been widely reported in the media – particularly in the light of your apparent approval of the Treasury’s retraction of £384m in funding for schools following the abandonment of the compulsory conversion of all schools to Academies – funding for schools is in crisis.

Changing the distribution of existing funding for Schools – which is already falling in real terms – will not address that crisis. As Neil Carmichael MP, Chair of the Commons Select Committee for Education, said in his letter of 12 December 2016 to Mr. Gibb:

“Many schools find themselves unable to deliver essential functions and the way in which funding is distributed between schools is a second-order question. We are both all too well aware of the wider financial pressures under which schools in our own constituencies are seeking to operate.”

– “Letter from Chair to Nick Gibb MP regarding National Funding Formulae”, Neil Carmichael MP

Even the schools that benefit under the proposed new formula will in reality not benefit very much. A 5% increase in funds becomes a 2.5% increase after inflation. That is a very marginal amount. Inflation will also worsen the situation for schools whose funding is reduced, of course. The 3% limit on reductions per pupil becomes roughly a 5% reduction once inflation is taken into account.

The Apprenticeship Levy and the rising costs of pension and National Insurance contributions make the situation yet more severe. Schools are required to increase pension payments from 14% to 19% of salary, for example. Your departments’ own figures can be used to demonstrate that as a consequence 98% of schools face a reduction in funding in real terms. According to the National Audit Office schools will face a real-terms funding reduction of £3 billion by 2020.

In the constituency of Birmingham Hall Green where I live, the National Union of Teachers, Association of Teachers and Lecturers, National Association of Head Teachers, UNISON, GMB and UNITE have calculated that cuts will lead to a 10% loss of funding in year 2019/20 when compared to 2015/16, or more than £500 less for each child.

As a consequence, schools are already cutting back on the resources and activities that are crucial to your stated objective that “whatever their background, ability or need, children should have access to an excellent education that unlocks talent and creates opportunity”.

For example, my son’s school, Kings Heath Primary School in Birmingham, prides itself on the provision of mainstream education for children with complex needs. This is an incredibly powerful way to bring up our children to naturally accept diversity. But the approach depends on the availability of sufficient resources; on the ability to adapt the physical environment to be sufficiently accessible; and especially on the ability to employ an adequate number of teaching assistants.

The School estimates that they have historically received £100,000 less funds every year for Special Educational Needs than is needed to provide this support. The broader cuts that are now being made to their funds mean that this provision is under acute threat. This is in addition to £150,000-£200,000 of further staff cuts that will be made, including reducing the number of teaching assistants from 19 Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) to 10 FTE.

Additional cost-saving measures that the school is taking include:

  • Replacing modern foreign language teaching with non-specialist and volunteer teachers.
  • Terminating the school’s subscription to a local Sports Partnership providing access to sport and Physical Education facilities.
  • Cancelling education visits.
  • Reducing swimming lessons.
  • Not being able to replace ICT equipment that is already 9 years old, and therefore badly out-of-date.
  • Not being able to replace playground equipment which is already showing signs of wear.
  • Expanding class sizes to 32 and further reducing teaching ratios.

In all of these cases, the children who need the most help will be the children who lose out the most.

These cuts would be troubling enough if we lived in a world in which we could trust our schools to prepare our children to face a stable, well-understood future. If that were true, then we would “only” be concerned that our schools were preparing our children less well than they were able to prepare previous generations.

But our children face a future that is much more uncertain than that.

Many economists and observers of the technology industry believer that we are part-way through a decades-long “Information Revolution” that will transform our society and economy just as much as – if not more than – the Industrial Revolution .

Experts disagree at present whether the dominant impact of the technologies of the Information Revolution will be to remove existing jobs through automation, or to create even more new jobs that exploit the capabilities of those new technologies (which was ultimately the effect of the Industrial Revolution).

What is certain, though, is that the jobs of the future will require vastly different skills than the jobs of today; and that we can barely conceive what those skills might be. This trend is already apparent: for example, whilst the number of manufacturing jobs in the USA is currently rising, prospective employees need increasingly sophisticated technical skills in order to manage the robotic machinery that now performs most of the work.

The economic effects can already be seen too. Since the arrival of the personal computer in the 1980s first ushered in the age of mass use of digital technology, whilst US GDP has nearly doubled, median household income hasn’t risen at all. Unemployment amongst young people in many European countries is between 20% and 50%. In the UK, there has been no increase in average earnings so far this decade, and young people in particular have become worse off. The situation is unlikely to improve for many years.

Research from the Universities of Oxford and New York, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the Management Consultancy McKinsey, amongst others, predicts that increasingly rapid developments in digital technologies such as Artificial Intelligence and Robotics will lead to the increasing automation of a significant proportion of jobs over the next few decades. McKinsey suggest that up to half of the activities that people are currently employed to perform will be automated within the next 30 years. Consequently, the jobs that current Primary School pupils will seek in 20 years’ time will require vastly different skills than the jobs of today; and we can barely conceive today what those skills might be.

Whilst our Secondary Schools provide in-depth education in well-defined subjects such as Mathematics, Physics, Geography and Design, it is our Primary Schools that first develop our children’s overall attitude to learning.

We cannot be sure that in 20 years’ time subjects such as Mathematics, Physics, Geography and Design will be valued in the employment marketplace. What we can be sure of is that children who are inspired to learn and adapt constantly throughout their lives will ultimately be successful in acquiring and using whatever are the economically important skills throughout their careers.

It is our Primary School environments that will create that inspiration or not, and we should focus our resources on enabling them to do so.

In light of this evidence, I urge you to reconsider the focus and objective of your Department’s work.

Of course funding for schools should be allocated in a way that is fair and that reflects the different needs of different pupils and different schools; and I congratulate you and your department on your work on the New Funding Formula to the extent that I believe that it does establish a framework for the fair distribution of funds.

But the fundamental problem facing the United Kingdom’s Schools is not the criteria that are used to apportion the available funds; it is a critical shortage in the funding available.

You and your Department should be fighting with all of your energy for dramatic improvements to that situation.

After all, what on Earth could be a higher priority for public funding than the future of our children?

Yours sincerely,

Dr Rick Robinson FBCS CITP FRSA