Heads blast £320m for free schools and grammars as ‘little short of disgraceful’

Chancellor Philip Hammond
Chancellor Philip Hammond

Headteachers have blasted as “little short of disgraceful” the government’s allocation of £320million for free schools and grammar schools.

As schools battle to hammer home the message that they do not have enough money to balance their budgets, the Chancellor Philip Hammond used his own spring budget today to announce the payment.

Worth Less? campaign

Worth Less? campaign

The money will be used to pay for 110 new free schools in addition to the 500 already pledged to be created by 2020.

Mr Hammond told Parliament: “We commit to this programme because we understand that choice is the key to excellence in education.”

Members of the Worth Less? campaign have been fighting for almost two years for more money for West Sussex schools, only to be told there was not enough money to meet their needs.

The announcement that there is, after all, plenty of money for free schools and grammar schools left them furious.

Hitting out at the amounts being spent by the Department for Education (DfE), a spokesman for the campaign said: “Last week the independent National Audit Office (NAO) stated that ‘the primary factor for decision making for opening free schools is pace rather than maximising value for money’.

“We also learned that land – not even buildings – for just four sites had costs the DfE £120m.”

The report from the NAO – which scrutinises public spending for Parliament – revealed that, as of December 2016, the DfE had also spent £206.5m on 19 sites in areas where free schools had not been approved.

The campaign spokesman said: “It is little short of disgraceful that our government is releasing money huge sums of money for projects which are unproven and not viable when excellent schools up and down the country are not even able to make ends meet.

“Families must be made aware that when the government says it does not have enough money for teachers and pastoral colleagues to teach and care for our students, money is no object when it comes to free schools and grammar schools, particularly when there is not even a basic need for places.”

Prime Minister Theresa May has been a passionate advocate of free schools since her days as shadow education secretary.

She said: “It is the expansion of academies and the creation of free schools that have been the biggest driver of increased diversity and progress in our school system over the last seven years.”

It was not an opinion shared by Grahame Robson, head of Manor Green College.

Mr Robson said: “The government’s continued obsession with free schools, grammar schools and multi-academy trusts risks the viability of the current system, and school leaders generally cannot understand how DfE ministers can remain so apparently sanguine in the face of increasingly incontrovertible evidence that our state school system is sinking into a financial abyss.”

During his budget speech, Mr Hammond also confirmed £216m would be provided over the next three years to help rebuild and refurbish existing schools.

Given the NAO report found it would cost an estimated £6.7billion to bring all schools buildings up to a satisfactory or better condition, it could be argued that Mr Hammond’s figure was no more than a ripple in a drop in the ocean.

The Worth Less? campaign spokesman said: “Instead of telling us that more money is being spent on schools when real-terms funding is going down by 7 per cent, political leaders of all colours need to step up and object to these ideologically driven spending sprees.”

East Sussex joins the fight

Schools in East Sussex have joined the battle for fairer funding.

Launching their FlatCashEd campaign, headteachers warned that, by 2019/2020, the county’s secondary schools would have to manage with an average £260,000 less funding.

For primary schools the expected figure was £75,000.

Caroline Barlow, head of Heathfield Community College, and chairman of East Sussex Secondary Headteachers, said: “We simply do not have sufficient funding under the current proposals and therefore call on parent groups and colleagues to support us in urging local MPs to work with us to address these issues in order to maintain the commitment to excellence in education for all young people of East Sussex.” Tony Smith, head of Lewes Priory School, added: “East Sussex headteachers are passionate about maintaining and improving standards for our children and young people.

“We believe that we must now work together to secure sufficient funding for the children who will contribute to and enhance the future of our country.” To support the campaign, follow @FlatCashEd on Twitter or Facebook.

Another TV appearance keeps campaign in focus

The Worth Less? campaign found itself under the spotlight of national media once again with a live appearance on Channel 4 News.

Jules White, head of Tanbridge House School, Horsham, spoke to presenter Jackie Long on Thursday (March 2) He was joined by Jo Yurky, parent and co-founder of London’s Fair Funding For All campaign, and David O’Hara, chairman of governors at Penistone Grammar School, Barnsley.

Although invited, neither Justine Greening, secretary of state for education, nor schools minister Nick Gibb were available to appear on the programme.

When asked to described the situation at Tanbridge House, Mr White told Ms Long it was “really very bad”.

He said: “Last year I had to find a quarter of a million pound saving, this coming year it’s a third of a million pounds.

“And there’s only one real way to do that and that’s actually losing teaching staff.

“I lost three last year, we didn’t replace five members of administrative support and I’m having to make further cuts in even things like cleaning, premises staff, my IT provision – and matters are just getting worse and worse.

“I’m even having to look at the moment about making cuts to vital counselling services for some of our most vulnerable pupils.”

Explaining the need for continued campaigning, even with the National Funding Formula scheduled to be introduced in 2018, Mr White said the new system would see his school gain 3 per cent – £180,000.

This would be swamped by unfunded costs of 8-10 per cent – £200,000.

Mr White said appearing on live TV was “very nerve wracking”. He added: “I just want to run our great school rather than doing media work.

“It’s crucial, however, to highlight the desperate funding situation of West Sussex schools.

“We were promised by local MPs and the DfE that our real-term funding would improve under a new formula.

“The current proposals do not deliver anything like that and every independent expert agrees.

“Meanwhile, money is no object for untried and unproven pet projects like free schools and grammar school expansion. When will our local MPs speak out with school leaders and tell parents and families unequivocally just how bad things really are?

“As class sizes rise again, teacher numbers shrink and pastoral care is diminished we need our political leaders to do the right thing openly and publicly.”

The consultation into the National Funding Formula will end on March 22. To take part, log onto www.gov.uk/government/consultations/schools-national-funding-formula-stage-2 .

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