A fairer formula for schools: it’s not just about funding

In the face of Brexit and a Trump Presidency, our communities face a period of crisis and uncertainty. We therefore must continue to focus attention on supporting and improving school’s here in the UK so that our young people are as well-equipped as possible to adapt to this rapidly changing world.

Aside from the distracting nonsense of Grammar Schools, the Government is pursuing ambitious reforms to the national schools’ funding formula. The second stage of their consultation was published on 14th December and, having campaigned for such reforms for several years, there are many aspects that I welcome. However there are also concerns surrounding the potential 8% real-term cuts that are being imposed nationally by 2019-20.

With all this in mind, school funding is likely to become the focus of debate in education, but, I believe, that we may end up further overlooking a far more important issue that is currently driving our education system into crisis: the understaffing of UK schools.

The government has repeatedly denied reports of teacher shortages, pointing to growth in teacher recruitment, and to increases in the number of recruits with 1st class degrees. Opponents point to high drop-out rates and increases in the number of substitute teachers.

I would suggest that such discussions ignore the most obvious measure: the number of pupils per qualified teacher; a metric that is difficult to find in national statistics.

After recruitment and departures, a review of DoE data shows that the number of qualified teachers in state schools in England has increased by 3% since 2010. However the number of pupils has increased by 6%; raising the number of pupils per teacher by 2%.

2% does not sound like a massive deterioration. However, data from the Worldbank (focussed on Primary schools) should raise concerns, with the UK’s pupils per teacher ratio of 17.4 (in 2014) comparing poorly with many countries and, in fact, the average for all OECD member countries (15.7).

In education, a single metric comparison with other countries is undoubtedly limited. However it is clearly evident that increasing the number of teachers per pupil would bring significant benefits to our children.

Effective education depends on high quality teachers having time to invest in their pupils both inside and outside the classroom (see Sutton Trust EEF Toolkit and sort by ‘Impact’). Living with a teacher, I know the hours of time that go into the planning and feedback required to be an excellent teacher. If we really want to improve our school system then we need to provide teachers, and pupils, with this time. The only way that will be possible is through ambitious recruitment targets that help reduce workload.  Michael Gove and his successors have, disappointingly, delivered the opposite to this.

Governments have repeatedly imposed targets on schools. I believe that our Party should instead set the government targets to reduce pupil/qualified teacher ratios which would improve the support that every child receives and help reduce the excessive workload which is driving teachers out of the profession every year. Once the success criteria are made clear, the financial decisions can be made and justified.

* Jamie joined the Lib Dems in 2014 and was elected as City Councillor for West Chesterton in May 2018.

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  • Interested readers can find international class size data, both current and past, for primary and secondary schools on the OECD website: https://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?DataSetCode=EAG_PERS_RATIO, distinguishing between public and state schools.

    By international standards we have relatively large primary and relatively small secondary classes.

  • Peter Watson 10th Jan '17 - 12:25am

    It is great to see an article on LDV that is not about Brexit and which does not attempt to present a story that the Coalition was better than anything before or since.
    I am unsure how to add to this conversation, but feel it is necessary at least to try since I think it is important for this site and the Lib Dems to avoid looking like a single-issue echo chamber, so here goes …
    i am a parent, not an educationalist, but it feels as though over the last few years there has been no clear vision for education in this country, just a lot of messing about in the hope that everything will be made better by a return to old-fashioned examinations and a free market for schools. This article presents an opportunity for Lib Dems to demonstrate not only that the party believes that the expertise of qualified teachers is important but also that the party values teachers as people. Politicians seem to pay lip service to this with platitudes about remembering great teachers while simultaneously ignoring and dismissing the views of teachers. The workload of teachers is difficult to quantify and depressingly, what I have heard on radio phone-ins suggests that it is even more difficult to generate sympathy, so perhaps a target based upon qualified teacher / pupil ratios would be helpful in providing a positive, measurable and useful goal.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 10th Jan '17 - 8:30am

    I agree with Peter Watson that it is great to see an article on Lib Dem Voice that is not about Brexit. Jamie, you raise some vitally important issues. As a party, we need to have some really ambitious, visionary policies for education. As a starting point, I would suggest that the size of primary school classes should never be more than twenty. After all, class sizes in the independent sector tend to be smaller than twenty. We need to end the situation of state educated students getting second best. This would need a lot of extra spending on education, and the recruitment and training of many extra teachers. But what better investment can there be, than on the best possible education for the nation’s children?

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