Absolute breaking point for education system

A warning that Britain’s education system ‘is failing the most vulnerable pupils’ while class sizes rise and budgets have reached ‘absolute breaking point’, came from Paul Whiteman, general secretary of National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) on 8 March. On 4 March MPs debated schools funding after more than 100,000 people signed an online petition started by head teacher Andrew Ramanandi calling for a desperately needed increase.

The government repeated its mantra that they have ‘increased funding by an extra £1.3bn across this year and next, over and above previous spending plans’ (UK Government and Parliament Petitions 5 February 2019). In reality, since 2010, schools have seen funding shrink by 8% on average, and sixth forms by 20% according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. This means cuts to support staff, services and interventions for children with special educational needs and disability (SEND), and that teachers are forced to cover ‘for canteen staff and cleaners’ and schools are being forced to close early to save money (The Guardian 8 March 2019).

Parents have reported being asked to help pay for basic equipment such as books, pens and paper. Continued austerity has stripped school resources from state education and left a grim reality for working class families in Britain; it has created one of the widest attainment gaps in education for children living in poverty or with additional needs. One fifth of children in Britain are under-achieving in school, 2.5 million children in England live in poverty and one in five children leave school unable to read and write properly (Al Aynsley-Green, The British Betrayal of Childhood, September 2018).

Thousands of SEND pupils excluded from learning

The funding crisis is felt most sharply by young people with SEND, as cuts to education provision coincide with brutal cuts to health and social services. According to Department for Education (DfE) statistics, over 1.2 million (14.6%) of pupils in England have a form of SEND. It is a battle for parents and carers to ensure their children get support, and they must now apply for their children to be assessed for an Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan, a legal document that proves the child’s entitlement to additional funding. Since the 2014 Children and Families Act, this provision has been extended to cover people up to age 25, but there has not been an increase in funding. A report by the Local Government Association in December 2018 showed that 93 local authorities expected spending on children with SEND to be underfunded by £287m. The vast majority of pupils with SEND (85.4%) do not have a statement of SEN or EHC plan. This is because local authorities and schools are reluctant to grant them as the first £6,000 cost of the support is taken from the school’s budget. But even with an EHC plan, many of these young people are not able to access the support they need.

It is a demonstration of the utter failure of this system that thousands of children with additional needs are being denied access to learning. According to DfE figures 2,060 were out of school ‘awaiting provision’ at the start of this year and about 2,400 more were not in school as their parents had been forced to make ‘other arrangements’. This generally means leaving work and schooling children at home with no support, which is often highly stressful and isolating for both children and parents. As reported in FRFI 268, ‘nearly half of temporary exclusions are pupils with special educational needs, who are permanently excluded at a rate six times higher than others’. Exclusions of autistic pupils are up 60% since 2011, and research from the charity Ambitious About Autism revealed that 30% of 900 parents and carers of children with autism had been forced to give up their job as a result of exclusions.

Parents and head teachers begin to protest

The lack of organised resistance from the major education unions is leaving parents to legally challenge the government’s failure to provide an education for their children through costly, stressful and drawn-out tribunals. In the past two years, appeals heard by the special educational needs and disability tribunal have almost doubled and figures from 2016-17 show that parents and carers were successful in 89% of these cases (SEND tribunal statistics). In March 2019 three families of children with SEND won the right to a landmark judicial review of the government’s SEND funding policy, arguing that it is unlawfully underfunding education. The findings of the review will surely show that the government is criminally failing to educate these children. No doubt fine words and promises of change will follow. The fight for a decent education for every child will have to continue as long as the cost of the capitalist crisis is pushed onto the most vulnerable in society.

The Worth Less? campaign, which organised last September’s unprecedented protest of 2,000 state school head teachers outside parliament demanding fair funding, sent a letter on 8 March 2019 from 7,000 head teachers to over 3 million families. The letter detailed the severity of the funding crisis and criticised education secretary Damian Hinds for repeatedly rejecting the groups’ demand to meet head teachers. On 15 March, Hinds told the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) at their annual conference in Birmingham, where at least 15 schools have had to cut their week by half a day, that he would make ‘the strongest case’ for the ‘right level of investment in our schools’ at the upcoming spending review. ASCL estimated that £5.7bn would be needed in the upcoming year to meet the needs of all pupils. Parents protested outside the conference and the Worth Less? campaign calls for them to write to MPs and the DfE but a seismic change is needed to prevent the destruction of state education. The government will continue to cut education to the bone until real organised resistance develops which can fight for the right for every child to access a decent education.

Ruby Most

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 269 April/May 2019