Fingers pointed in all directions as another warning is sounded over school funding

(Title Image: BBC Wales)

School funding has become one of the hot issues in the Senedd over the last couple of months and yesterday afternoon AMs debated the Children & Young People Committee’s report on that very subject – summarised here.

No simple solutions

In an age of unprecedented change to education in Wales, the Chair of the Committee, Lynne Neagle AM (Lab, Torfaen) said there was one conclusion from the inquiry above all others which was the most disturbing: not enough money is going to schools.

“We saw this first-hand during our school visits. As we’ve outlined in the report, this is a simple conclusion that, unfortunately, does not have a simple solution. The system for funding schools is hugely complex, multilayered and dependent on many factors, not least the amount of money available to the Welsh Government from Westminster. It must also be recognised that responsibility for providing adequate funding for our schools cuts across ministerial portfolios. Given the complexity of the funding formulas, Ministers across Welsh Government must work together to ensure that schools receive the funding they need.”
– Committee Chair, Lynne Neagle AM

Shadow Education Minister, Suzy Davies AM (Con, South Wales West), said the Welsh Government needn’t have been surprised by the report’s conclusions. The Conservatives approached the inquiry accepting possible issues with UK Government funding and part of the problem has to lie there, but extra money has been made available – up to £355million resulting from budget changes in England.

Sian Gwenllian AM (Plaid, Arfon) though there was a real risk an opportunity will be lost during curriculum reforms to address this. The National Association of Headteachers say that during 2019-20 there were just under 1,300 more pupils, but 278 fewer teachers and 533 fewer support staff.

“The evidence we have received shows a lack of understanding of the roles of local government and regional consortia. I cannot criticise the confusion as even you are still working on providing clarity. And, Minister, I do recall during my scrutiny of you during one of your ministerial presentations to us at committee, you said, ‘Janet, even I cannot follow the money from the Government to the schools’, so there is a concern that if you can’t follow it, how are our headteachers and, indeed, our parents able to follow it?”
– Janet Finch-Saunders AM (Con, Aberconwy)

There was plenty of finger-pointing too.

“It’s your fault, it is!”

Dawn Bowden AM (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney) and Darren Millar AM (Con, Clwyd West) clashed over whether this was a result of UK Government austerity or Welsh Government spending decisions and/or inequities in local government finances.

David Rowlands AM (BXP, South Wales East) made an argument for direct funding for schools instead of allowing local governments to top-slice it, but Mike Hedges AM (Lab, Swansea East) countered that the biggest school-related spending area decided purely by councils was school transport.

Alun Davies AM (Lab, Blaenau Gwent) fired a warning shot to the Welsh Government, suggesting that Labour backbenchers might not support the forthcoming Welsh Budget if it doesn’t put education and schools at its heart. He called for the complexity of the funding system to be addressed – suggesting budgets should be spent regionally or via the education consortia.

Education Minister, Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor), said there was ongoing budget uncertainty caused by the UK Government:

“….whilst the UK Government’s spending round indicates some loosening of the purse strings, it does not provide the sustainable long-term basis on which to plan that our public services desperately need….I have to say to Suzy Davies, with the greatest of respect, she quoted a figure of three years’ funding that has been made available to the Department of Education. I would have loved to have been in the same position. The reality is that this Government does not know its spending allocation for more than one year. It is all very well to give that security to colleagues in England and then not provide that security to us here in Wales, and people out there need to know that.”
– Education Minister, Kirsty Williams

The Minister suggested the often-quoted £600-per-pupil spending gap with England was out of date (from 2011) and the gap has been “virtually eliminated”.

Institute for Fiscal Studies educational economist, Luke Sibieta, has been appointed to undertake work to understand why there were big differences in school spending between different local authorities. The Minister hoped this would be finished by summer 2020.

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