Justine Greening's spending announcement provides no comfort for schools, argues Judy Cox
The Education Secretary, Justine Greening, has announced that 2.6 billion pounds over the next two years will go to plug the spending crisis in our schools. ITV news introduced the item by declaring that austerity in the classroom was over. This is not true. Greening tried to pretend she had found some new money for schools. She hadn't. Some £420 million will be taken from the healthy schools programme which funds sports programmes and healthy eating education. This programme is desperately needed and should be given more funding not less. Some £200 million will come from the, still huge, free schools budget. The rest will come from unspecified ‘savings’. This money is, as shadow education secretary Angela Rayner pointed out, a ‘sticking plaster’, designed to appease Tory MPs and councillors. Schools face rising costs and rising pupil numbers and still do not know what the new funding formula will be when the government finally finishes making it up. Even if Greening had kept the Tories' manifesto promise to give schools £4 million, school funding would still fall by 3% according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.
Greening has been forced to make her false promises by a huge national campaign waged by the NUT, teachers and parents. The campaign had a massive impact on the vote in general election with some 750,000 switching their vote from the Tories because of education cuts. Teachers and parents can seize this opportunity to win real funding increases, to smash the Tory’s 1% pay freeze for teachers and to ditch the remnants of the Tories' repressive, hierarchical and test-obsessed education reforms.
Theresa May’s election manifesto promised to build 100 more free schools. The free school programme is one of the more bizarre examples of Michael Gove’s dangerous legacy in education. Free schools were marketed as offering parents and pupils more choice but in reality they were designed to undermine both the inclusive ethos of local authority schools and teachers' national pay and conditions. Four years ago the then secretary of state for education Gove announced, ‘Marxists support free schools because they embody the ideal of the soviet, a self-managing institution run by workers in the wider public interest’. This expresses perfectly Gove’s ill-informed and overweening self-delusion – the same instincts which drove him to establish the hated and derided Spelling, Grammar and Punctuation tests which our poor 11 year olds still sit every summer. Gove’s successor Nicky Morgan called free schools ‘modern engines of social justice’ but they have a smaller intake of disadvantaged pupils than other schools.
Some £2.3 billion was thrown at free schools in 2015-16. That looks set to fall to £1.3 billion this year. Yet over 60 billion pounds has been seized from the schools budget and diverted towards Gove’s vanity project which has led to 345 free schools opening with some 140 more planned, many of which are selective. The government has spent some £850 million buying land for free schools. From their earliest days there were multiple examples of financial mismanagement, of free schools built in areas where new school places were not needed and of others opening with empty places. Last year, it was reported that over 2,000 children had their education disrupted when 22 free schools were forced to close because of poor results or lack of pupils. Free schools are three times more likely to be judged as failing by Ofsted inspections than state schools. This high failure rate comes despite the fact that free school pupils get 60 % more funding per pupil than state school pupils.
Free schools were never about parental choice. They were about remaking our education system to mirror the petty pedantry, market-driven and exclusive education system of the 1950s, before comprehensive education. The free school experiment has failed. The entire free school budget should be allocated to local authority schools. Greening’s announcement is deliberately misleading but is shows that the government is vulnerable to campaigns and to action. We can push them to provide decent funding for all our schools, to end the discredited SATs tests and give teachers a decent pay rise.
Judy Cox is a lifelong socialist writer and speaker. Now a teacher in East London, Judy was on the editorial board of International Socialism and has written amongst other things on Marx’s theory of alienation, Rosa Luxemburg’s economic theory, William Blake and Robin Hood.