State schools in England have suffered their worst decline in funding since the 1980s, with secondary schools and those in the most deprived areas the worst affected by the era of austerity, according to analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies.
The decline that began after the Conservative-led coalition government took office in 2010 is so deep, the additional £7bn pledged by the current government will not be enough to reverse the cuts by 2023, leaving school spending 1% lower than in 2009-10, the IFS notes.
Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said the research exposed the scale of government underfunding of education over the past decade and the largest cuts to school spending in more than 40 years.
“This is a historic failure of the nation’s children. It is also striking that despite government rhetoric of ‘levelling up’, the reverse is true. It is those schools that serve children from the poorest backgrounds which have had their funding cut the hardest,” Bousted said.
“Children only get one chance to go to school. A whole generation of pupils have had the whole of their time in school blighted by cuts.”
The IFS found that annual school spending in England averages around £6,100 per pupil, well behind the £7,300 for each pupil in Scotland, where investment continued to rise over the course of the 2000s. Education funding and policymaking are devolved to each nation’s parliament or assembly.
The IFS work shows that spending on schools in England surged from the late 1990s, under Tony Blair’s Labour government, until its peak in 2009-10. But since then there has been a real-terms decline in funding.
Luke Sibieta, an IFS research fellow, said by 2023, many schools will have endured 13 years of “a big squeeze on budgets”, resulting in larger class sizes and lower spending on books and equipment.
Sibieta said schools in the most deprived parts of England were badly placed to help their pupils catch up after this year’s extended lockdown, which he warned could store up a bigger problem for the future.
The figures from the IFS’s forthcoming report on education spending in the UK show that secondary school spending per pupil fell by 9% between 2009–10 and 2019–20, driven by steep cuts in funding for sixth-formers. In contrast, primary school spending per pupil has grown by 4%.
But the biggest impact has been on secondary schools in deprived parts of England. The IFS found that – in real terms – secondary schools in the areas with the 20% lowest incomes had their spending cut by nearly £1,000 per pupil, from £7,914 in 2009-10 to £6,926 in 2019-20.
Sibieta said schools in disadvantaged areas had been hurt by the inflexibility of the funding system, with the areas of highest disadvantage shifting from London to places such as Blackpool and Hull. But the government’s new national funding formula for schools had also failed to target those areas initially.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Schools are receiving a £2.6bn boost in funding this year, as we begin to invest over £14.4bn in total over the three-year period through to 2022-23 compared with 2019-20 – giving every school more money for every child.
“The lowest-funded schools are receiving the greatest increases as every child deserves a superb education, regardless of which school they attend, or where they happen to grow up.
“We continue to target additional funding through the national funding formula for schools with high numbers of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, providing £6.3bn in 2020-21 for pupils with additional needs, representing 18% of the formula’s total funding.”
But Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said the additional funding would be absorbed by the costs of pay awards, rising pupil numbers and other costs.
“The financial situation in schools and colleges is made worse by the fact that the government has so far refused to reimburse the significant costs that have been incurred in putting in place Covid safety measures in order to reopen this term,” McCulloch said.
“This will put even more strain on budgets that are at breaking point and mean that schools and colleges have less money to spend on educational provision. It is a desperate situation and the government has its head buried in the sand.”
Mark Anstiss has been headteacher of Felpham community college near Bognor Regis, West Sussex, since April 2010.
When I first started, I had to do a big restructuring, which led to about a dozen redundancies of support staff, and that was very difficult. I was a new headteacher, but we got through it.
The number of pupils on the roll then increased, but the number of teachers I could employ went down. Over the years we might have gained an extra 50 to 100 students because the school was becoming more popular, but the number of teachers has gone down.
Class sizes increased. In the past, if I had 60 students taking GCSE history. I could have put them in three classes of 20, but now I had to put them in two classes of 30.
We also reduced the number of options that students could do at A-level or GCSE, but that becomes a vicious circle, because if you don’t offer an interesting curriculum, then the kids don’t stay, and if they don’t stay on, you don’t get the money.
A few years ago [2016-17], we had to do another round of redundancies, and since that time it has been difficult and we have never had enough money to spend.
My school is comprehensive. I’ve got a learning support unit where our most challenging and vulnerable kids go. It’s quite an expensive resource. We’ve got an inclusion unit, with a couple of staff in there, because occasionally there are students with behavioural difficulties. If you are in a more middle-class school, you don’t need to have that sort of infrastructure.
Schools serving affluent areas have different problems, and clearly those students aren’t without difficulties. But when you are serving challenging areas, you need to spend more on support services.
The amount of time as a leadership team you spend dealing with those issues means you don’t have as much capacity to do school improvement. It’s not rocket science that the schools that are outstanding are in affluent areas, while the schools that require improvement or are in special measures are in tough areas.
The other thing that has exacerbated the financial burden is the national teacher shortage. I can interest teachers in jobs, but we sometimes end up in a bidding war with other schools. If you do that often enough, suddenly you find that you’ve got a big staffing bill.”