Rishi Sunak’s budget and spending review speech contained just over 100 words on schools compared to almost 800 on alcohol duties. As important as aligning fruit cider duties is, it is hard not to feel education had been somewhat deprioritised.
The headlines were mostly as expected: a real terms increase in the schools budget and a bigger one for post-16 that will nearly all be eaten up by teacher pay rises and higher student numbers. The budget small print indicated that schools will be expected to fully fund an increase in teacher starting salaries to £30k, which is 16% higher than now, as per the 2019 Conservative manifesto.
In addition there was an extra £500m for schools in each of the next two years to help them recover from Covid. This is roughly £60 per pupil per year, though it is not yet clear whether it will be distributed evenly or skewed towards the disadvantaged areas that have suffered most through the pandemic lockdowns. There will also be money over the next two years for an extra hour a week for post-16 students doing A-levels and vocational qualifications.
While this is certainly better than nothing it is unlikely to match the scale of the challenge. Even when added to the existing tutoring fund it comes to just a fifth of what Sir Kevan Collins, who resigned as the government’s education recovery comissioner early in the year, thought was necessary. There have never been school closures of this length before, and young people are on average two to three months behind where they should be, so it is a big risk to assume this will be caught up with minimal additional help.
At the moment, though, most schools are less worried about academic catch-up than they are about the broader impact of covid on children’s lives, especially those from less wealthy families. There has been a huge surge in referrals to the children’s mental health service (CAMHS), with numbers doubling in the last few years, and it simply cannot cope. Children with very serious mental health problems, including self-harm, cannot get a referral. We have also seen big increases in demand for special educational need services, with many councils unable to afford to fulfil their statutory duties. The chancellor did announce some extra money to build new special school facilities, but no additional revenue to manage this demand.
On top of this there has been a significant rise in pupils on child protection plans over the past decades, and an increase in pupils persistently absent from school. Local authority budgets got a boost in the spending review but much of this will this go to reform social care, and meet the rising costs of providing it. Moreover, schools are also seeing more of their pupils fall into poverty due to benefits freezes and caps biting hard. The reduction in the Universal Credit taper will help some of these families, but is worth a lot less to most than the £20 a week cut earlier this month.
All of these problems ultimately end up on schools’ doorsteps. They have become, in effect, the provider of last resort when other parts of the state fail, and it costs a lot of staff time and money. Without solving any of these problems, extra money for schools will not go to improving attainment, at least in less advantaged areas, but simply managing the consequences of inadequate support elsewhere.
This points to a wider problem that the white paper on schools, coming next year, will have to engage with. When Michael Gove turned what had been the Department for Children, Schools and Families into the Department for Education, he was signalling a move away from Labour’s agenda to integrate schools into wider service provision, and refocus them on education. But 11 years on schools are dealing with more of these wider social problems than ever before, and without a system that offers any integration. Either the government need to give other bodies like local authorities and CAMHS the resources to relieve schools of the burden, or they need to start thinking again about how schools can fit in with a wider set of social services.