Last reviewed 22 August 2023

Michael Evans considers some of the controversial issues surrounding school funding.

Recently released figures indicate that in the 2022/2023 period, the UK Government allocated £105.5 billion to education. This amount was second only to that designated for the NHS. Of that total, £33.8 billion was directed to primary and pre-primary education, while £54.3 billion went to secondary education.

Since educational spending accounts for around 4.6% of national income, it is hard to understand why there are so many complaints that the system is seriously underfunded.

School buildings

Looking first at school buildings. The second half of the 20th century saw a massive school building programme, but many of these buildings are now coming to the end of their designed lives. Ongoing maintenance has often been overlooked or skimped, causing concern at the state of some of them.

The DfE has already expressed its worry that due to their poor condition, many older buildings appear to be in danger of collapse. It has also been noted that large amounts of asbestos remain in some school buildings, while outdated pipework in some schools can result in drinking water having high levels of lead.

While it is the owner of the building, such as the local authority or academy trust, who is responsible for its condition, much of the capital spending will come from central funds and over the past few years it is reported that there has been an effective decline in this.

Teacher salaries

In any large organisation, it is staffing costs that will be the greatest expense. Teaching was traditionally regarded as a “vocation”, so salaries always tended to be at the lower end of poor. Present day teachers now have a whole range of additional responsibilities. Planning, record keeping and assessment now take up so much of a teacher’s time, that 10% of a timetabled week should now be designated non-contact time.

Since greater expectations have now resulted in a greater workload, teachers understandably have demanded better remuneration. After years of significant decline in teachers’ pay when compared with other comparable professions, the major teacher unions threatened strike action, and this resulted in a pay award of 6.5%. However, the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) suggests that a “full correction” to teacher pay would mean a rise of 16.5% in 2024/2025.

The DfE, however, has pointed out that the 6.5% pay award is the highest award for teachers for 30 years and starting pay for new teachers will be at least £30,000. Furthermore, this comes on top of a record pay rise of 5.4% in 2022/2023, making an average increase of more than 12%. Since 40% of teachers move up a scale to the next pay point each year, these teachers will see increases in their salaries of at least 10% and up to 17.4%.

Conditions

To ensure that teaching remains an attractive career, there is a promise from the DfE that a workload reduction taskforce will be convened. The Government is also setting an ambition to reduce teacher and leader workload by five hours per week. In the knowledge that flexible working opportunities exist to graduates outside the teaching force, Flexible Working Ambassadors are to be appointed to offer practical advice to school leaders to help imbibe flexible working in schools.

Recruitment and retention

A major long-standing problem in the teaching profession that seriously needs to be addressed is that of recruitment and retention. Retention can be helped by the reduction of workload and an introduction of flexible working. This would also be a major attraction with respect to recruitment. The problem with flexible working for schools is how to make it work and the Government’s Flexible Working Ambassadors might provide the answer.

Further efforts to attract high-quality graduates into the profession include offering postgraduate bursaries and scholarships. These are tax-free incentives that will vary according to the subject which graduates train to teach. For instance, for chemistry, computing, physics and maths, the bursary is £27,000. Scholarships are also offered for science subjects and maths. While bursaries are paid automatically, scholarships have to be applied for.

In addition, there is also Levelling Up Premium worth up to £3000 tax free for teachers in the first five years of their career who teach maths, physics, chemistry and computing in disadvantaged schools.

Additional funding

The Government has announced that in 2023/2024 schools will get an additional £2 billion of revenue funding and the same again in 2024/2025. In 2024/2025, it says that in real terms, as measured by the Institute of Fiscal Studies, schools will receive the highest level of funding per pupil ever. Schools will be free to determine where this additional funding will be spent.

The additional £2 billion, says the Government, will mean that a typical primary school with 200 pupils will receive an extra £35,000 in funding, while a typical secondary school with 900 pupils will receive an extra £200,000. Overall funding for mainstream schools is increasing by around £310 per pupil, on top of the average £300 per pupil last year.

In spite of all this, although they have called off their threat of strike action, the teacher unions are not impressed. With no overall growth in education spending in real terms for 15 years, the NEU commented that the £2 billion will simply restore 2024/2025 levels to what they were in 2009/2010. Due to inflation, says the NEU, funding plans for 2022/2023 to 2024/2025 will leave schools more or less exactly where they started.

The NAHT drew attention to the new and significant financial pressures that schools are facing, such as surging energy prices, covid-related costs, falling primary pupil numbers, increased National Insurance contributions and a significant underfunding of SEND.

Clearly, says the NAHT, in order to finance various urgent requirements, without additional support for schools that are experiencing these severe pressures, economies must be made in other directions. The obvious target is staffing, and this inevitably results in larger classes.

Teacher unions, school leaders and teachers consider that there is a serious shortfall in funding for much of what is expected of schools. The Government meanwhile seems adamant that addition funding that has been granted is more than sufficient to meet these needs.

When all else fails

Unfortunately, the financial pot is not bottomless and in spite of the eyewatering amount of money that is pumped into education each year, there will never be enough to meet the needs and wishes of everyone. There will always be important areas that will be crying out for more and it is politicians who have the difficult task of finding a balance between the provider and the consumers.

That is not to say that school leaders and teachers should simply sit back and accept the fait accompli. In a democracy there will always be a corner to fight, and reasoned arguments can often achieve surprising results.