Revealed: the worst-hit schools as spending freezes amplify ‘privilege gap’

Seven in 10 schools across England have been hit by cuts and can’t afford the same essential running costs as when the Conservatives came to power in 2010, new analysis shows.

Some 13,000 schools across the country were subject to cuts over the period, with the worst hit – Dunraven Secondary School in Lambeth – seeing its real-terms spending power slashed by a total of £4,093,473 this year when compared to 2010.

Hundreds of schools have lost over £1m in real-terms funding compared to 2010, according to calculations by the National Education Union (NEU).

On an individual level, some 2,000 schools have lost over £1,000 in real-terms budget per pupil under the Tory government.

Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson told The Independent: “I wish that I could commit to solving all of that if Labour wins the next election, and fixing it quickly, but I do have to be upfront about the scale of the challenge.

“There will be that immediate investment of cash that we will make ending the tax breaks that private schools enjoy. But beyond that, we do need to get our economy growing so we have more to invest in our public services.”

A Conservative spokesperson said: “Under Rishi Sunak and the Conservatives, we are boosting school funding to the highest level ever in real terms per pupil, driving up standards across the country up from 68 per cent of schools being rated good or outstanding under Labour to 90 per cent today with children in England named ‘Best in the West’ for reading.”

Headteacher Claire works in an infant school in Milton Keynes. The school has lost out on £1,214 in real-terms funding for each pupil compared to 2010, according to NEU calculations, a dip of 13 per cent.

Claire doesn’t believe that either political party is tackling the budget problem.

“On a national level, I think funding just needs to be completely relooked at for schools… it doesn’t feel like it’s on the agenda for this election at all. I don’t feel that it’s a priority for any of the major parties.”

The NEU has created the single-issue School Cuts social media campaign for the general election, which the union says has reached upwards of seven million people. The union is encouraging a letter-writing campaign to local candidates.

The NEU calculates real-term cuts to schools by determining core funding and then outlining school expenditure each year, adjusting for inflation and other price shocks.

Daniel Kebede, general secretary of the NEU, said that the impact of Conservatives’ education cuts is clearly visible in schools.

“The truth is, 14 years of government cuts to schools have left education in crisis, and children are paying the price. We can all see the consequences: larger and larger class sizes, burned-out teachers leaving the profession, and buildings literally falling apart.”

He added: “The government is failing a generation of children.”

Government cuts to funding, in addition to a spike in children with special educational needs at mainstream schools, means that schools have been forced to make drastic decisions on what they can provide to students.

Teachers like Claire are seeing that lack of resources widens the divide between children from high and low-income households, the latter of whom don’t get access to the same experiences, such as school trips.

“What’s really worrying me is if we can’t give children access to resources and experiences, that’s going to affect their education. We won’t be able to close that privilege gap, between those that can and those that can’t. The cycle is just going to continue and repeat itself.”

The above map from NEU data shows that schools have been impacted in all areas of the country, with most local schools facing budget squeezes in constituencies in the North West and South East.

Schools in Slough, Bethnal Green and Stepney have lost close to £30m in real terms, comparing 2023-24 levels to 2010-11 levels. Meanwhile, London boroughs top the list of constituencies worst hit by cuts, with 17 having lost more than £1,000 on average per pupil.

These take in constituencies such as Hackney North and Stoke Newington, Clapham and Brixton Hill, Tottenham, and the Cities of London and Westminster.

Claire’s school in Milton Keynes is struggling with monetary pressures on all sides. Her only avenue for major costs like leaks and asbestos checks is the local council, which says it doesn’t have the money either.

“It’s like a brick wall, basically,” she said.

The budget is so small that the school can no longer afford to pay the caretaker. Now, teachers and office staff take out the bins themselves, perform health and safety checks, and pick up essential items after school.

In an effort to get by, Claire says that the school relies on some goodwill: volunteer groups have come to paint the building, for example, and teachers’ husbands have even done repairs when needed.

“Saying it out loud, I think, oh my God. We just get on with it,” said Claire.

In a recent report, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) said that “no real-terms growth in school spending per pupil over 14 years is historically unusual”.

Over her 11 years at the school, Claire has noticed a huge drop in resources and budget, particularly when it comes to IT and school trips.

“When I first started, we had a full suite of computers in the ICT room. The budget was in a surplus. We had an extension done at the time to make one of the classrooms bigger. There were significant pots of money, and we just don’t have that luxury any more. It’s just gone.”

The ratio of pupils to teachers has gone down, too; and staff are juggling multiple roles, without having the pay or qualifications to match.

“Lots of children are coming into school with significant speech and language difficulties. The services are not there in the NHS to support that. So we’ve got teaching assistants being expected to act like speech and language therapists when they’re not qualified to do that.”

She added: “Schools and teachers are becoming almost social workers, to support families that are living in poverty.”