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Our school system is a mess. We’ve so many different categories of schools and the funding is so complex, working out the true financial position of all schools so that funding is fair is almost impossible. The Department for Education (DfE) is always late in publishing its accounts and these are often a mess. The DfE funds all state schools, including academies, free schools and, to a large extent, faith-based schools.
We know schools are being heavily squeezed financially. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve written about the large (still with us) funding crisis, a national cut of at least £2 billion by 2020. Despite the DfE’s insistence that ‘more money than ever before is going into schools’, it’s only because there are more children than ever in schools. The cutbacks and efficiency savings have been made by schools, there is little that can be cut now other than essential frontline services.
State schools are funded from the DfE via the local authority who keep a small amount of the money to fund central activities, things that all their schools can access for free. The days of local authorities being flush with funding ended when headteachers were delegated devolved budgets as a result of the 1988 Education Act.
Academies, including free schools, are funded directly by the DfE with no ‘cut’ to the local authority. If they wish to use local authority services, they must pay. For schools in Multi Academy Trusts (MATs) the situation is different. The MAT will control the DfE money for the schools within their trusts. In fact, if a school with a surplus of funds joins a trust, any money they have can legally be taken by the MAT. It can then be spent however the MAT decides, not necessarily on the school that accumulated the surplus, with no consultation necessary. The school that accrued these surplus funds, sometimes from parents via the parent teacher association, may have had an idea for a new building. If the MAT decides the school doesn’t need it, neither the headteacher, governors, nor, crucially, the parents legally have any say. In the best MATs there is consultation. But in at least one instance an MAT took surpluses from several schools, only to hand back the schools to the DfE and walk away having spent millions not necessarily directly to their schools’ advantage. The Wakefield City Academy Trust left 21 schools high and dry. In an MAT, the concept of the school as an independent entity is lost – it is merely one part of the trust.
I think we’ll increasingly see schools charging for previously free or goodwill services for parents and children. It is also the case that, unless the funding crisis is addressed seriously by central government, schools will start charging for things that traditionally would have been supplied free; textbooks, writing paper, pens and pencils, essential supplies. There has been reports in The Argus of schools doing that. ‘It’s just a stunt’ cried some – well, my prediction is that such requests will become more common, especially in rural schools hardest hit by budget losses.
Headteachers will try to resolve budget difficulties however they can without resorting to such measures, but budgetary pressure may prove too overwhelming. What else are they to do? If your options are to shut down all clubs and after school activities or lose teachers it’s a no brainer. A charge, even a small one, may need to be levied for any extra service, such as a chess club.
My real concern is that the current government is paving the way for a fully privatised education system. The MAT model is erratic at best. Some MATS work very well and provide excellent education. Some have been an absolute disaster and the MAT team has just walked away handing schools back to the DfE to be ‘sold on’ to other MATS, like trading unwanted items at a Sunday car boot sale.
If the system is grossly underfunded (as it is), if MATs – who by law cannot make profits – fail, I can see a future Conservative government, if that’s what we get, going flat out to do what Margaret Thatcher envisaged in the 1980s. She favoured privatisation with a school voucher scheme where business injects the much-needed cash (with the incentive of being able to profit from their schools) and an open, free-market education system. Your children will at once become desirable (or undesirable if they are not bright enough) ‘goods’ from which big business can profit. Your schools will open and shut on a whim, depending on how ‘profitable’ they are. You, the consumer, will be kidded into thinking you’ve a free choice of schools, when in fact a few multimillionaire company CEOs will be in control of all schools.
Source: The Argus