Boris Johnson at Chatham House conference, October 2017. Photo: Chatham House via Flickr Boris Johnson at Chatham House conference, October 2017. Photo: Chatham House via Flickr

New promises of more spending in schools reflect enormous popular pressure on the Tories but do not match what is required, argues Alex Snowdon

There have been numerous indicators lately that the Tories are on an election footing. The announcement of new policies, especially when they appear to involve spending commitments, is a sure sign. Recent pledges on police numbers and the NHS have been joined by announcements about schools policies, complemented by a leak revealing some of the thinking behind them.

Four policies have been announced: two that appear good for schools and teachers, two that are not so good. The pledge to increase funding for schools and the announcement of an increase in the starting salary for newly qualified teachers (to £30,000 by 2022) look promising. They reflect enormous pressure on the Tories – from unions, parents, campaign groups – that has been building over the last few years.

It is widely documented that Tory MPs have repeatedly reported that school cuts are a serious concern and a vote-loser in their constituencies. Lobbying via the School Cuts campaign, backed by unions (especially the National Education Union), in advance of the 2017 general election had a marked effect on the election. And the pressure has increased since then. The fresh pledge on funding is designed to placate people and demonstrate a willingness to break (in terms of the Tories’ political positioning) from the Theresa May era. It represents a real victory for everyone who has campaigned, lobbied and protested against school cuts.

The National Education Union has warmly welcomed the new spending commitments, but also warned that they are not enough. The flagship announcement is a three-year plan for increases in schools spending, starting with £2.6 billion in 2020-21. Schools have suffered real-terms cuts, year on year, for the last few years, doing serious damage. The promised increases will alleviate the severity of cuts made in recent years, but are not enough in the long term.

The recent fanfare about new spending for SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities) should be treated with caution – it doesn’t compensate for the deep long-term cuts in support services, often provided at local authority level. Furthermore, the leaked DfE document indicates a desire to drastically cut the number of teaching assistants working in schools in coming years. Unsurprisingly, such a deeply unpopular stance is not featured publicly. It is not only a serious assault on a section of the schools workforce, but something that will undermine the quality of education for young people. Such cuts would disproportionately affect children with SEND.

There are also major concerns about which areas will be prioritised for targeting the bigger spending increases. Pre-election spending commitments need close scrutiny, as politicians are fond of directing money towards marginal seats. Sure enough, the leaked Department for Education briefing (intended only for ministers and officials) refers to “areas of the country that have been historically underfunded”. It turns out that these areas correlate surprisingly closely to where the Tories need to prioritise in a general election. In fact it is all areas, and almost all schools, that have suffered from school cuts – and all areas require a bigger increase than the Tories are offering.

The pledge on teachers’ pay also looks less appetising on closer inspection. An increase in teachers’ starting pay would be very welcome: much-needed in terms of teacher recruitment and retention as well as being what teachers deserve. However, the talk about teachers’ pay is a mere 3% increase for 2020-21, which is not nearly sufficient after many years of pay cuts. It is also unlikely to tackle retention issues without a serious and concerted drive to tackle workload problems. Rhetoric about recruitment rings hollow, meanwhile, as long as the Treasury rejects (as it still does) calls for free teacher training across all sectors and subjects.

The two remaining policy areas are to do with academies and discipline.  There is a renewed commitment to drive up the number of academies, in particular in the primary sector that has so far been largely resistant. This represents a recommitment to the Tories’ long-held project of increasing competition, fragmentation and private sector involvement in our schools, while weakening the role of local authorities. It has precisely nothing to do with evidence about what works educationally.

Finally, there is the populist and authoritarian rhetoric about discipline. This consists of talking up exclusions and the use of ‘reasonable force’ by school staff. Neither of these things will do anything to address genuine problems in schools, but are instead meant to be crowd-pleasing gestures, similar to the announcement about increasing prison places. Even the Lib Dems have condemned the desire for more exclusions, with their education spokesperson Layla Moran highlighting the link between excluding pupils and rising knife crime. Children’s charities have suggested it would be better to address underlying factors, from unmet mental health needs to deprivation, rather than ‘sounding tough’.

These latest policy flourishes reflect, to a great extent, the huge popular pressure that the Tories have been subjected to. Ministers and advisers know that schools need more money and that continuing austerity in education is electorally damaging for them, as well as educationally destructive for the rest of us. But their promises do not live up to what is required. We need to sustain campaigning for bigger increases in schools funding and teachers’ pay, while opposing the twin obsessions with academies and tough-talking. 

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).