Stop the stealth cuts to school budgets
It seems that some Welsh schools are facing stealth cuts. In practical terms, this could mean they will have fewer teachers when pupils return after the summer holiday than they had last September.
This is a development that should worry us all, yet there has been barely a peep about it from politicians or anybody else.
Twenty years ago Jeff Jones was the Labour leader of Bridgend County Borough Council and the Welsh Local Government Association’s political lead on education.
He lives in Maesteg and has become aware that his local primary school is “letting go” three teachers.
This follows a decision made by the council he once led to implement cuts to the schools budget. In February this year Bridgend decided to reduce it by 2%, equating to around £2m for 60 schools, with the cuts largely hitting staffing costs. Inevitably that is resulting in a cut in the number of teachers.
Cllr Hywel Williams, cabinet member for finance, said at the time that while the whole budget process was a challenge, asking schools to make a contribution at this time was one of the most difficult parts. He said: “Throughout this difficult journey of austerity cuts, we’ve protected schools continually over the last 10 years.
“This has been a difficult decision as the schools have made a very robust defence of their budget, but we’ve had to balance that against the alternative of potentially a much higher rise in council tax, which we think would be unfair as we need to mitigate the impact of the cost-of-living crisis as best we can.”
For Jeff Jones, cutting the schools budget is a betrayal by the current Labour council of socialist principles. He said: “Cutting the schools budget at any time is unacceptable, but it is even more so at pres because for three years children have had to contend with the pandemic.
“My local primary school is cutting three teaching posts. The jobs going may be those of teaching assistants on short-term contracts, but the fact remains that there will be three people less to teach pupils than was the case in September last year.
“It shocks me that cuts of this kind are being pushed through with few people knowing about them. It’s cutting by stealth.
“We know that Wales suffers economically because many people have low skills. Cutting education is the last thing we should be doing.”
For Mr Jones, it makes no sense that the Welsh Government is spending millions of pounds introducing 20mph speed limits which he thinks will be unenforceable. He also thinks it unacceptable that councillors in Bridgend should be accepting pay of more than £17,000 a year while voting for school budget cuts.
“If I was still a member of the council I wouldn’t vote for school budgets to be cut, even if I was threatened with losing the Labour whip and being kicked out of the group,” he said. “The councillors who voted to cut school budgets are a disgrace.”
The Welsh Government was keen to offload responsibility for any education cuts on to local authorities. A Welsh Government spokeswoman said: “Despite our budget this year being up to £900m lower in real terms than expected initially, we ensured local authorities, who fund schools, received an increase of 7.9% to their budgets compared to the previous year so that they can continue to prioritise school funding.
“This is the toughest financial situation we have faced since devolution. There are no easy answers. The cabinet are working to mitigate these budgetary pressures based on our principles, which include protecting frontline public services, as far as possible, and targeting support towards those at greatest need.”
The spokeswoman added: “The amount of funding set aside for school budgets is for local authorities to determine – the Welsh Government does not fund schools directly. The Welsh Government provides funding to local authorities for pre-16 provision in schools in Wales mainly through the Local Government Revenue Settlement in the form of the Revenue Support Grant.
“Ministers and officials are engaging closely with local government on the budget.”
Would the Welsh Local Government Association take a stand against school budget cuts? The WLGA represents all 22 local authorities in Wales. It usually isn’t shy about making its views known. On this occasion, however, a spokesman said: “We won’t be making a statement this time.”
Why would that be? Could it be that the successors to Jeff Jones who run the council have too cosy a relationship with Ministers in Cardiff Bay and don’t want to rock the boat? It would be very sad if that was the case.
It’s true that there has been little debate about school spending cuts in Wales. One of the difficulties is that money is handed by the Welsh Government to local authorities, which in turn distribute it to schools themselves, where spending decisions are taken by school governors.
Individual schools are highly unlikely to create a public fuss even if they reach the conclusion that they will have to cut teaching jobs. Mavericks who cause trouble will worry that they don’t have sufficient leverage to fend off cuts – and there’s always the hope that more money will be on the table next year. But if schools themselves don’t raise the cuts as an issue, it’s unlikely that parents will rise up spontaneously. Most likely, they’ll remain in ignorance.
The teaching unions may organise resistance if their members are affected negatively by the cuts. But they may not be so concerned about job losses affecting teaching assistants on temporary contracts who are less likely to be union members.
Nevertheless the National Education Union’s senior policy officer in Wales, Mary van den Heuvel, has the right approach. She said: “NEU Cymru members will be deeply concerned about any potential cuts to funding within the education budget. It is especially important that the Welsh Government protects any money going to schools and colleges, as they struggle under the UK’s inflation situation.
“Our members would also be especially concerned about money which is meant to support children and young people living in poverty. Education is so important for everyone in Wales.”
Education is indeed important. Important enough for the Welsh Government to be leaning on local authorities that propose cutting school budgets.
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