Education is a costly business, from new shoes on the first day to university fees and beyond. On a broader scale, a good education for all is an essential investment for the nation. The government's plans for a transformation of technical qualifications and £500m per year in funding is welcome but every stage of education needs to be funded fairly. As the school age population increases and buildings and resources deteriorate, we need to ask ourselves: are we investing enough?
Large classes and school place scarcity are two significant problems facing schools. The number of infant class sizes of more than 30 pupils has tripled since 2008. The scarcity of school places could be alleviated through the opening of new free schools, but there are concerns. According to the National Audit Office (NAO), 'free schools are not always located in the areas of greatest demographic need, especially at secondary level'. This spare capacity can have a detrimental effect on numbers and consequentially funding in neighbouring schools. Free school places are also costlier than those provided by local authorities, largely due to the need to purchase land, land which is frequently scarcer in areas which need new places most of all.
This problem of a scarcity of places may be intensified still further because of the poor state of many school buildings across the country. Around 40% of schools were built between 1945 and 1976, and were only envisioned as lasting for 60 years. Under the Labour government, the Building Schools for the Future programme aimed to ensure every child would be 'educated in a 21st Century environment within 15 years'. Although the idea behind the scheme was widely supported, its cost-effectiveness was questioned and in 2010, the remaining projects were cancelled. However, some of those schools had stopped maintaining their buildings, exacerbating their deterioration still further. The NAO claims it would now 'cost £6.7 billion to return all schools to satisfactory or better condition' and that there is 'a significant risk that defects will go unrepaired and will cost more to address in the future'. Worryingly, the NAO also believes that 'school leaders could let buildings in poor condition deteriorate further so that they meet the Department's criteria for replacement'.
More important than the buildings themselves is what's going on inside them. We must have enough teachers to deliver the skills our students require and that those teachers have access to continuing professional development at all stages of their careers. The recruitment of teachers has become a challenge in some parts of the country, a crisis in others. Tackling this requires recruiting new teachers in sufficient numbers, yet targets for initial teacher training at secondary level have only been met in three subjects. Design and Technology only reached 41% of its recruitment target this year. The government has attempted to place teachers in areas with the highest need through the National Teacher Service. However, the service failed to recruit sufficient numbers and was cancelled. Thus, finding new ways to encourage teacher retention remains an issue. In comparison to other OECD countries, teachers in England work, on average, 19% longer hours. The number of teachers leaving the profession rose by 11% overall between 2011 and 2014 and 'among leavers, the proportion leaving for reasons other than retirement rose from 64% to 75%'.
Improving teachers' working conditions, ensuring their opportunity to engage in CPD which challenges and inspires, therefore encouraging retention, would be both a more cost effective way of helping deal with the problem and 'would strengthen the pool of leadership positions'. The Education Select Committee claims 'the Government is aware of these issues, yet needs to identify a strategic, long-term plan to effectively address them'. It is positive to have ambitious targets, but we must recognise the problems which exist for what they are. We need to invest to improve.
School budgets are at breaking point. As the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) warn, increases in employers' contributions to national insurance and pensions could have a significant impact on school finances. £384m had been promised for schools through the government's academisation plans. That money is no longer available to schools, yet the NAHT's Breaking Point survey points to more than twice as many schools being in deficit than they were in 2015, 72% of school leaders claiming their budgets will be unsustainable by 2019 and that 71% are only able to balance their budgets by 'making cuts or dipping in to reserves'. School spending did grow throughout the 2000s, but according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, current spending per pupil has largely been frozen in real terms from 2010-11 to 2015-16. Worse still, over the course of the next four years, 'school spending per pupil is expected to fall by about 6.5% in real terms'.
Making sure each school has enough money to run smoothly, offering our young people quality teaching and excellent care, in well-resourced, well-maintained buildings is surely essential to ensure our education system can match the best in the world and that, more importantly, our children can thrive. The physical state of our schools, the issues surrounding teacher recruitment and retention, and the financial predicament that some schools find themselves in need to be discussed for a solution to be found, but this can only be done efficiently by accurately assessing the situation and acting accordingly. How much further can we go before we are forced to admit that continuously saving money could mean we have to rescue education? The conversation must continue, but its focus needs to change. Let's stop talking about cuts and start talking about investment.