Kids have an acute sense of what is “fair”. You will hear, ”that’s not fair,” in any Cornish playground on any weekday because we all teach our kids what it means. Without any sense of irony the word was used by George Osborne and Danny Alexander (both of whom look like they have not long left the playground) in defence of last month’s budget. We were also told, many times, that we “are all in this together” – this being the most severe public spending cuts since the war. Now the dust has settled what is fair about the cuts coming to Cornwall soon and are we really all in this together?
Despite Cornwall’s Children’s Services failing an Ofsted inspection last year, Cornish schools, by far the biggest part of the service, continue to enjoy an excellent reputation. Although punished by an unfair funding formula (a child in Cornwall is worth £100 less a year than one in Birmingham – what is fair about that?), Cornish exam results are consistently above the national average. No Cornish school is in Ofsted’s special measures, and only two have a notice to improve. Almost 97% of applicants get their first choice secondary school, making it the best in the south west and one of the best in the country. The Conservative/Independent coalition, which runs Cornwall Council, inherited a well run service which, so far, has caused few problems.
Before Mr Osborne’s budget and Mr Gove’s “free” schools programme the storm clouds were gathering. Firstly, Cornwall has falling rolls. Predictions are that they will continue to fall for at least five years. As money follows pupils, this means that for the coming academic year Cornwall’s primary schools will be over £10m less well off than last year. The problem is more pronounced in the rural areas and Council officers have identified eight zones, including The Lizard and The Roseland, where it is most acute. Cornwall’s 237 Primary and 31 Secondary Schools currently have over 7700 excess places, a rate of over 12 %. The LA’s lead officers believes that that rate will need to be halved. In a rural county, with many schools of less than 100 pupils, having to lose over 3500 school places is going to be difficult to say the least.
The authority’s strategy so far has been to “federate” schools (three schools with one headteacher) to save money on staffing. The problem with this model is that most heads in small schools teach as well. If you take them out of the classroom to manage another school you then you have employ a teacher to take their place – hence savings are small or nonexistent. This strategy is likely to be as much use as an ashtray on a motorbike in the longer term.
Secondly, Cornwall has a serious backlog of maintenance on older buildings. Neil Burden, Cabinet Member for Schools, claimed it was “over £40m” at Cornwall Councils June meeting. The failure of the schools PFI 1 maintenance contract cannot have helped the situation. In real terms this means that an excellent small school like St Tudy needs a new heating system, replacement windows and a replacement for the school canteen which was: a) across a road, b) a mobile classroom, and c) condemned due to asbestos in the roof. Today we have confirmation, by Mr Gove, that the Building Schools for the Future programme is to be “suspended.” The £75m earmarked to rebuild or improve six secondary schools will not be coming our way. In addition Cornwall has no plan to find the £20m backlog in maintenance for the primary sector. What is fair about that?
And then we have Mr Gove’s flagship “Free” schools and “academy” policies. Those with an “outstanding” judgement from Ofsted (is that really the only measure?) can apply to become an Academy where the new governing “trust” who will be presumably be given the schools land and buildings, can vary curriculum, staff pay and conditions and, most significantly, entrance criteria. So far twenty Cornish schools have expressed an interest. This may be in part due to the blatant bribe being offered for “setup” costs but I suspect it is more driven by the personal ambition of a few individuals. A year on, when education budgets are no longer “protected” and cuts of 25% over 3 years are planned the temptation to become “Free” (free from what?) will be difficult to resist. What is more serious is where Mr Gove is going to get the money from for his flagship policy. We know that one source discussed was money for free school meals. The only other is inevitably from all of the other “Council” schools. What is fair about that?
What is certain is that Cornish schools are facing a very difficult future. Less money and less pupils will in the end mean less teachers and support staff and ultimately less schools. Possibly a lot less schools, in what is already one of the poorest parts of the country. All this when the chief Execs of the FTSE 100 companies saw their income rise by 7% last year to £3.1m, when £30bn was paid in city bonuses at Christmas, when the bankers, who received £1.2trillion of public money are better off after the budget, and when the government is committed to spending £100bn on a new nuclear weapons system. Where is the fairness in that?
What is obvious is that Mr Osborne, Mr Gove and Mr Alexander went to all the wrong schools.