Fund our schools! I hate foolish funding cuts!” This is what my daughter has written on a homemade banner she has made for the April Fools’ Day march in Cambridge, when she and I and hundreds of other parents, teachers and children will march into the city to protest against school funding cuts.
Why? Because schools in Cambridge, like many across the country, are facing a financial crisis. My daughter Flora is seven and attends St Matthew’s primary school, an inner-city Cambridge school. Her school budget will be reduced by £60,000 next year – but other schools face far worse cuts.
As a result of these cuts, schools in Cambridgeshire and elsewhere in this country are having to take drastic measures, with some forced to close half a day early to save costs. Similarly, schools are not able to invest in the capital infrastructure of their buildings and make essential repairs – a recent survey of 3,500 teachers found two-fifths have set up buckets to catch drips when it rains, and more than a quarter do not believe their schools are in a good state of repair.
Where will all this end? School funding gaps should not have to be filled by fundraising campaigns or whatever solution that inventive, resourceful parents come up with. We need central government to put more money into schools, which have suffered years of underfunding and are now in crisis.
As well as being a mum, I am an education journalist,and last month, I reported that representatives of 7,000 headmasters – normally a quiet, apolitical bunch of people – have twice tried to meet with education secretary Damian Hinds, and been repeatedly knocked back. Local councillors and the Local Government Association have repeatedly called on central government to provide additional funding for schools, warning that in the face of funding pressures councils may not be able to meet their statutory duties and children with high needs or disabilities could miss out on a mainstream education. But to no avail. Ministers continue to say there is more money in the education system than ever before.
Yet the government’s own data on school funding suggests otherwise. Even though it has risen in cash terms since 2015, there has been a cumulative £5.4bn real-terms shortfall in school funding in England over the past three years alone, analysis of official government figures by School Cuts suggests. It predicts 91% of schools will have experienced real-terms cuts in their funding per pupil by 2020.
Meanwhile, school costs are rising faster than inflation. Cumulative wage-related costs – such as nationally agreed pay rises for teachers, national insurance and pension increases – have gone up from 3.4% in 2016-17 to 8.9% in 2019-20, teaching unions have reported.
Now it is the turn of parents to speak up. What is seriously at risk here are the additional services that schools can provide for the most vulnerable children in society: those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and those with special educational needs and disabilities. If schools do not have the money to support those children, their needs will not be met. And that then has long-term implications. If these children leave primary school poorly educated compared with previous generations, we will all be worse off. It makes me fear for the future of this country.
Every single child in this country should have access to an excellent education. But at the moment, because of lack of funding and resources, not every child will receive one. Are we going to reach a point where you will only get an outstanding education if you pay for it – either through parental donations or by going private to a fee-paying school? If parents cannot afford to contribute or they send their child to a school in an area of high deprivation, will those children be destined to get a third-rate education? Because, right now, I think that’s where we are heading.
I have been so inspired by the teachers across the land I have spoken to about funding cuts, including my daughter’s own headteacher, Tony Davies, and Catharine Darnton, a headteacher in Oxfordshire who has had to deal with heating failures, power cuts, blocked drains, a chemical stink and the threat of raw sewage leaking on to her playground due to lack of capital investment.
But even headteachers have a limit. You cannot provide an inspirational education if you’re worried about how you’re going to repair a leaking roof, or pay the teaching assistants, or help a child with mental health needs to stay in school.
What gives me hope is the response of the people of Cambridge. With the help of parent and teacher networks, parents at St Matthew’s have reached out to all the 220 primary schools in Cambridgeshire. The teaching unions are getting involved in supporting us on the day of the march and even local councillors have been supporting us as much as they can. We’ve been on local Cambridgeshire radio and local businesses have been hanging our posters in their shops and cafes. Every day, our presence on social media grows.
This is a university city, a city full of people who care passionately about education and understand its value. So I invite the people of Cambridge and beyond to march with us on Monday. Meet us at Reality Checkpoint (the “Narnia lamp-post”) on Parker’s Piece at 4pm and send out a message loud and clear across the land: in Cambridge, we will not be taken for fools. We will not stand by and watch as these funding cuts slice our children’s education down to the bone. We will march across this glorious city with our children and our teachers and our voices will be heard.
Please join us.
• Donna Ferguson is an education journalist. She writes for the Guardian and the Observer