Ed Davey: Fairer funding for Kingston

Local MP Ed Davey writes about the work he has been doing to achieve fairer funding for Kingston's schools

We have to support our schools — and back headteachers — as they rightly call this Government out for its shabby treatment of our schools and colleges.

School budgets — down or up?

Listening to the debate about budgets for schools, parents might be forgiven for being confused.

Government Ministers say “there is more money going into our schools than ever before” whilst headteachers are demonstrating against cuts. They can’t both be right, surely?

Unfortunately, it’s a classic case of “lies, damned lies and statistics.”

The Government’s case

It is true that spending in 2020 is projected to be £43.5 billion. Taken in isolation, that would be a record.

Yet it takes no account of inflation. No account of pupil numbers. And, headteachers would say, no account of unfunded extra costs imposed by central Government. And analysis by the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies shows spending per pupil will fall by 6.5% in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20 — a massive cut.

But then Ministers fire back: “the OECD has ranked the UK as the third highest for education funding” in terms of spending by percentage of GDP.

Except that this figure includes private expenditure, student loans and scholarships.

If the calculation is re-done, purely on public spending, the UK plummets to 14th — just ahead of the USA and Portugal, but well behind the Nordics, France, Canada and so on.

The UK Statistics Authority’s case

Shockingly, the use of statistics by the Department of Education has led the Chair of the independent UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, to write to the Secretary of State for Education, Damian Hinds to complain (his letter can be found online).
Dated 8th October 2018, he writes, “I am writing to raise with you serious concerns about the Department for Education’s presentation and use of statistics.”

He goes on, “school spending figures were exaggerated by using a truncated axis and by not adjusting for per pupil spend.” And “I urge the Department to involve analysts closely in the development of its communication, to ensure that data are properly presented in a way that does not mislead.”

If the head of the independent statistics authority had said that about my work, I’d be a tad ashamed.

The reality of cuts to schools

Personally, I’m livid about these cuts. I’ve been talking to primary and secondary headteachers across Kingston, and they are more worried than I’ve ever seen.

So schools are writing to parents to ask for money. Teachers are multi-tasking in extraordinary ways — from cleaning the toilets to cooking the meals. Basics like textbooks, stationary and science equipment have been dropped.

Four-day weeks are being considered. Reduced curriculums implemented. Support services like pastoral care and therapy decimated. And funding for education in schools and colleges for 16 to 18 year olds has been cut so badly, that budgets are no higher than 30 years ago.

And then we get to special needs children.

Special Education Needs – Kingston’s unique challenge

Across the country, councils are struggling to meet the costs of providing adequate provision for special needs children and young people. In a recent Commons debate, led by my Twickenham colleague, Vince Cable, it became obvious that central Government support for special education needs was woefully short of demand nationwide.

Yet Kingston’s challenge is by far the worse.

In London, Kingston’s overspend on special needs provision is dramatically higher than comparable Boroughs. The mounting debt caused by Kingston’s special education needs overspend alone is so serious, it threatens to bankrupt the Council.

Action is at last being taken — and there’s a real hope that the magic elixir of better services and reduced savings can be achieved this time. For Kingston — as London’s smallest Borough — has seen a much higher proportion of our special needs children, educated out of Borough, at much higher cost.

If we can improve our local offer to families — and increase the number of local places — then there’s a chance everyone can win.

So I’m working with Kingston Council to push for extra investment, to allow us to open a new special school in the Borough. I’m arguing that Kingston should become a centre of excellence for all major therapies — from speech and language to physiotherapy.

And we need NHS partners to play a much greater role — as Ofsted argued — not least in early diagnosis and intervention.

Funding education — the big issue

The never-ending debacle over Brexit has had many casualties. From firms going bust to investment plans being shelved.

Politically, it has meant the normal day-to-day issues have been either forgotten or left to take second place. As an economist, I talk about the “opportunity cost” of Brexit — what we could have achieved but for its continuing distraction.

There are plenty of examples, from knife crime to the deplorable state of our railways. But education funding is without doubt up there.

We have to support our schools — and back headteachers — as they rightly call this Government out for its shabby treatment of our schools and colleges.

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