School funding, the state of school buildings – 8 things we learned today

AND survey on the state of school buildings has revealed “alarming” problems that the government is working to “rectify”, the education secretary said in Parliament today.

Education ministers answered queries about policy from MPs this afternoon during a lively education questions session – just after it was revealed that Rishi Sunak will be the UK’s next prime minister.

Here are the key talking points from the session:

1. School buildings survey ‘alarming’, admits Kit Malthouse

Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson asked about a Department for Education survey – reported on earlier this year – which described some school buildings as a “risk to life”.

She asked if, in the context of discussions about government departments being asked to find efficiency savings, whether education secretary Kit Malthouse (pictured) believed there should be further cuts to school capital budgets.

Mr Malthouse said that the survey on school premises did reveal some “alarming” problems, and said the government was working closely with local education authorities, multi-academy trusts and others to “rectify” this.

He added that the government had invested “significant” amounts of money in the school rebuilding program, and said he continued to have “conversations with the Treasury about how we may be able to do more”.

2. ‘Wait and see’ on Schools Bill

Mr Malthouse was also asked about the government’s Schools Bill, and if the Bill had been dropped.

The Bill, which followed the Schools White Paper, has been changed and delayed during its parliamentary procedure following publication in May. It was reported to be in line to be ditched via an update from the education secretary in the House of Commons last week.

But today Mr Malthouse was coy on its future, saying this depended on the new prime minister.

“For the moment, we’ll have to wait and see what he has to say,” Mr Malthouse said.

Rishi Sunak will replace Liz Truss as prime minister this week after being chosen as the new leader of the Conservative Party today.

3. School budgets under ‘significant pressure’, concedes Malthouse

The education secretary was asked multiple questions about school funding throughout the session, including from Labor MP Charlotte Nichols, who said that schools in her constituency, Warrington North, were facing “extraordinary” financial pressures.

Mr Malthouse said the government was “monitoring” the impacts of inflation on across the whole of the country, and continued to have “dynamic and ongoing conversations with Treasury colleagues about the importance of school funding”.

In response to a later question, he conceded that schools were “under significant pressure, as is most of society”.

“We will obviously be making representations to Treasury colleagues about what those pressures are”, he added.

The statement comes after leaders of 13 organizations, including the Confederation of School Trusts, the NAHT school leaders’ union, the Association of School and College Leaders and the National Governance Association, wrote to all Conservative MPs this weekend warning that schools in their constituencies will see an average shortfall of up to £ 45,000 for primaries and £ 250,000 for secondaries by 2024.

They warned that this will lead to teacher cuts that impact on educational outcomes and leave pupils being taught in dangerous buildings, if funding is not increased urgently.

4. SEND Green Paper response to come by the end of 2022

The consultation on the government’s SEND Green Paper, which proposed a major overhaul of the system, came to a close over summer.

In response to a question about the paper, children’s minister Kelly Tolhurst said that the government was planning to respond to the consultation “before the end of the year”.

5. £ 30,000 teacher starting salaries ‘amazingly competitive’

Labor MP Jeff Smith asked schools minister Jonathan Gullis what steps the DfE was taking to improve the recruitment and retention of teachers.

Mr Gullis said the government had committed £ 181 million in this year’s recruitment cycle and outlined other action taken, including a commitment to the £ 30,000 starting salary for teachers as set out in the 2019 manifesto.

But after Mr Smith raised further concerns about high teacher vacancies and departures – citing a NEU teaching union survey suggesting that nearly half of state school teachers “plan to quit within five years” – Mr Gullis hit back, saying it was a “shame” that he was being “negative” about the profession.

Mr Gullis added that the £ 30,000 starting salary – which he has previously said the government is “committed” to from next year – was “amazingly competitive”.

6. Off-rolling ‘unacceptable’

Labor MP Marsha de Cordova asked Mr Gullis what actions he was taking to tackle “off-rolling” – the practice of removing a pupil from the school roll without using a permanent exclusion – and whether he was ensuring that all schools are collecting data on numbers involved, including ethnicity, age and gender.

In the past schools have been accused of “off-rolling” students in order to improve their position in school league tables.

Mr Gullis said that he thought off-rolling was “totally unacceptable” and that no school should be using it.

He added that this had to be “balanced” with making sure that heads have the power – “where there are unruly children” – to remove them from the classroom where they are to the detriment of the other pupils.

He said he would be happy to meet with Ms de Cordova to look at examples “where we can call schools and school leaders out who are using this tactic inappropriately”.

And he concluded that the DfE was taking the issue “very seriously”.

7. ‘Aggression’ towards Michaela called out

Responding to a question about Michaela Community School – headed by social mobility tsar Katharine Birbalsingh – Mr Malthouse said that he was “alarmed” by the “aggression” that the school attracts from the “wider educational establishment, particularly on social media”.

He described Ms Birbalsingh as “outspoken” but said it was “gratifying” to see Michaela’s Progress 8 scores – which measure how pupils perform compared with their expected level – last week, which were the highest in England.

Ms Birbalsingh, who chairs the Social Mobility Commission, has become a high-profile school leader as the head of the Michaela Community School in Brent, London.

On her Twitter profile, she describes herself as “Britain’s Strictest Headmistress”.

Year 7 students at Michaela are taught how to sit properly on a chair, how to walk to lessons quickly in single file and how to concentrate on the teacher, to instil good behavior as soon as they arrive.

8. Direct national funding formula work ‘underway’

Former schools minister Robin Walker asked Mr Malthouse whether a direct national funding formula was a “legislative priority” for the current government.

Ministers expect all schools to have their budgets set centrally under a national funding formula (NFF) by 2027-28, a consultation published earlier this year states.

The NFF has been repeatedly delayed since its announcement in the 2010 White Paper, though it was launched in “soft” form in 2018-19, retaining councils’ flexibility over how individual school budgets were set.

Mr Malthouse responded by saying he could “confirm” that work was “well underway” on exactly the issue Mr Walker queried, though he did not provide further detail.

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