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Star Comment: Reversing school cuts is just the start – Labour can go much further

MINISTERS’ admission that many schools will not even receive full funding for teachers’ pay rises highlights the utter falsity of Tory claims to have ended austerity.

A Labour analysis of figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies published today shows that annual school budgets have been cut by £1.7 billion in real terms in the last three years alone.

With capital funding cut by a third and schools lacking the money to maintain staffing levels, buy books and equipment or pay for essential repairs, Chancellor Philip Hammond’s £400 million grant — unveiled with a flourish a week ago to pay for such “little extras” as head teachers might decide they fancy — was met across the education sector with disbelief.

As shadow education secretary Angela Rayner points out, it is “downright insulting” to expect schools to show gratitude for a one-off payment that neither addresses nor acknowledges the severe funding shortfalls caused by years of public-sector “restraint,” and especially by the funding formula announced by then education secretary Justine Greening in 2016, which caused real-terms cuts to the budgets of almost all state schools.

Failing to cover the cost of the 2018-19 pay rise adds injury to the insult — especially as the pay rise itself doesn’t even match the 3.5 per cent for all pay grades recommended by the School Teachers’ Review Body, let alone make up for the fact that the average teacher is now £5,000 a year worse off than they would be had the Tories not held pay back below inflation for the last eight years.

Hammond has also failed to learn the lessons of the last election, when teacher trade unionists joined with parents and children to raise awareness of cuts to school budgets in towns and cities across the country, using the excellent School Cuts website as a mobilising tool.

Subsequent studies suggest over 750,000 people switched their votes because of this. Cuts to prisons and legal aid have had devastating consequences, but ministers cynically bank on the chaos unleashed being hidden from the public except for the unlucky minority who get caught up in our legal or penal system. The results of school cuts are harder to hide and remain one of the most effective areas of campaigning to build a mass movement for change.

It is no wonder, given the contempt with which the Conservatives treat teachers and schools, that we face a teacher retention crisis. Last month we learned that over a third of new teachers in London have left the job within four years. High teacher turnover in schools has been shown to have a negative impact on pupils’ learning, as well as on their emotional wellbeing.

Labour’s determination to reverse Tory cuts and “increase per pupil funding to a record high” is welcome, and much of its planning for a National Education Service is aimed at healing the deep wounds inflicted by Conservative cost-cutting: ending the public-sector pay cap, introducing free school meals for all primary schoolchildren, reducing class sizes and reducing workloads through action on monitoring.

But the problems afflicting the sector are deeper still, and Labour could be more ambitious. A counterproductive fixation on testing that is making children and teachers ill should be overhauled, with union advice heeded on abolishing Ofsted and replacing it with a supportive inspection system accountable to local communities.

League tables set schools against each other and encourage heads to “off-roll” pupils with special needs. “Free” schools and academies are unaccountable and hamper the planned allocation of resources to meet local needs: they should be scrapped and returned to local authority control.

Last year’s election showed communities can be mobilised in opposition to school cuts. But a radical vision for reshaping a failing system would deliver more for our country — and for the party bold enough to express it.

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