Death by a thousand cuts

17 Sep

“The budget is not just a collection of numbers, but an expression of our values and aspirations” – Jack Lew

Just a couple of weeks back I was blogging on how we needed to start praising the teaching profession after a series of good news stories around GCSE and A Level results.  A view that the media shared.  Not long after we saw some more positive progress, this time on our ever improving attendance figures and standards at Foundation Phase.

However, all this good work is at risk due to the recent announcements of staggering in year funding cuts.  There is little doubt that the fact £5m is to be taken out of education budgets to plug the black hole in health spending will lead to almost certainly unmanageable pressures at school level.  This is a serious financial concern for schools who are already severely underfunded.  It is hard to imagine how teachers operating in dilapidated buildings, having to use their own money to buy basic materials such as pens and paper, are going to be able to reach the ambitious PISA targets set for them by the Welsh Government when they are facing even more austere times.  There are already too many schools operating with deficit budgets, just about keeping their heads above water.  Finding substantial savings from in-year budgets that will already have been allocated without having a noticeable and negative impact on standards is going to be an impossible task.  It is hard to see how we are not going to see resources withdrawn, teachers made redundant and lessons disrupted.  All of these things having a direct impact on the ability of students to reach their potential.

This funding cut is not isolated of course.  It was previously rumoured that there would be a £5m cut to education through changes to the Ethnic Minority Achievement Grant; the School Effectiveness Grant and the 14-19 Network Grant to fill the hole in the £20m that has been committed to the Schools Challenge Cymru programme.  Assuming these are two different sets of £5m cut, and given one is to pay for health spending and one for the SCC initiative that is a fair assumption, we are now looking at £10m to be found at a time where schools are running on empty.

Further to this the Welsh Government has now done a u-turn on the £2m cut to the Financial Contingency Fund.  Now I don’t disagree with that change of mind.  This is a fund that makes a huge difference to the ability of students to stay in higher education.  However, if it had been cut for a reason then in reinstalling it that £2m that had been ‘saved’ is now needed to be found elsewhere.  Will we see another part of the education budget sacrificed to make up the shortfall?

This is not just a money issue but one of time managment.  Hours and hours of work will have gone into establishing budgets for a school.  Those headteachers are expected to create 3 year budget plans yet the Welsh Government’s allocation of funding has been ripped up after barely 6 months putting all schools back at square one.

The Welsh Government are perfectly entitled to distribute their budgets as they see fit of course.  They are the democratically elected body that determines such spending.  If health spending is prioritised above education that is a decision they can, and have made, and one that they will no doubt aim to justify to the electorate in the future.  Equally, I support the Schools Challenge Cymru programme and so if money is to be found for that then it is a priority decision the Welsh Government must justify by making that initiative the success it potentially can be.  What we must all appreciate at the same time is that when you have a system already at breaking point due to chronic underfunding cutting millions upon millions from the in-year budgets have serious consequences for performance.  What we have praised in terms of improving standards over the past few weeks is now in a state of jeopardy.  Everyone will continue to aim to do more with less but expectations need to be realistic in light of the climate that schools find themselves in.

If we truley value education as an economic and social driver then it must be properly funded.  Currently we are asking the education sector to deliver world class standards on ever decreasing budgets.  The two simply do not go hand in hand.

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