Lansdowne Question Time Debate

Education Budget Cuts: how will Malvern schools cope?

In spite of the bitter winds brought by the ‘Mini Beast from the East’, an audience of concerned Malvern people submitted a number of important questions on this issue to the experienced panel at the eighth Lansdowne Question Time. In the chair was Cynthia Palmer, Councillor and Mayor of Malvern, and she invited each of the panel members to introduce themselves and state some of their concerns.

Stuart Sewell, a former Malvern headteacher and until recently CEO of the Mercian Educational Trust, told the audience that all local schools had been recommended to become academies, education services are subcontracted to run by Babcock International, and that many schools were now in growing deficit or in debt because they are inadequately funded. His chief concerns are that this affects adversely equal opportunities for all pupils, mental and physical wellbeing of students and staff, and recruitment and retention of good teachers

Brian Allbut, Chair of the Worcestershire Diocesan Board of Education and the Worcestershire Diocesan Academies Trust, has approached the Department of Education over the funding issue. While the budgets may not have decreased in absolute monetary terms, they have not taken into account the funding of small schools which have the same needs but relatively higher costs than larger schools, and which are vital in rural areas.

Samantha Charles, a Malvern parent and organiser of the petition to the Government opposing funding cuts, said that 192 out of 222 schools in Worcestershire will face cuts from April.  The average will be £146 per pupil.

Sean McCauley, Joint Divisional Secretary of the Worcestershire National Education Union, said that Government funding hasn’t allowed for the 1% pay increase for teachers, increased pupil numbers, increases in NI and pensions or inflation. Cuts average £45,000 per primary school and £185,000 per Secondary School. This has resulted in threats of redundancy for teachers, non-replacement of retiring teachers, fewer Teaching Assistants (TAs), increased class sizes and the loss of certain subjects like languages in Primary Schools and Music in secondary Schools. Parents have been asked to make more voluntary contributions to help reduce the deficits.

After a coffee break during which questions for the panel were submitted, Cynthia Palmer selected 10 questions for the panel to answer.  These ranged from the reasons for the funding crisis, when the Government declares that it is spending more on education, to where cuts can be made and what an individual can do to pressurise the Government and support the schools. Some panel members recommended the cutting of OFSTED inspections which cost money and are damaging to the morale and mental health of staff and students, while not leading to significant improvements in education. Several questions related to promises of improvements the Government claims to have made and the reality of the cuts in educational support services and Further Education.

Two panellists said that schools needed to be taken into public ownership again, and they would be better off under a Labour Government. Questioned on the use of cover staff on low wages to make up for staff shortages, panel members were surprised that schools could get away with this legally. Good
 schools use Higher Learning TAs to give support; they have degrees and know the children and their needs. While putting more pressure on the budget, wise use of IT can help pupils to be creative while freeing the teacher to give individual attention.

After a few more questions panel members were asked whether it is time for direct strike action. Most of the panel said that they would support teachers, as long as the students were not badly affected, as Worcestershire’s schools are in crisis.  In addition, members of the public should examine the voting record of their MPs (eg over the recent cutting of free school meals and other education services) and think who they vote for in the next election.        

Cynthia Merriman