A looming schools spending squeeze, larger class sizes and a decline in teaching standards risk plunging the education sector into an NHS-style crisis, MPs have warned.
In a stinging report published today, the Public Accounts Committee say that schools are facing the greatest financial pressure seen since the 1990s, as they warn that the Government has failed to learn from the failures that have wracked the health service in recent years.
Accusing ministers of “collective delusion”, the Committee adds that a similar scenario of “unrealistic” targets and “ineffective” leadership is bound to be replicated, should the concerns of headteachers go unheeded.
The warning comes as the Department for Education prepares to publish its White Paper on the proposed National Funding Formula, which it claims will ensure school funding is distributed more fairly across the country.
In order to help meet the £3 billion in savings required by 2020, the DfE also argues that schools are capable of making £1.7bn in efficiencies through better man management and procurement of staff.
But the report warns that “over-ambitious” targets, like those seen in the NHS, will be “counterproductive” and that the impact on teaching standards will “time-lagged” so that the most “damaging” effects will not become apparent until 2021.
It also claims that cuts will result in larger class sizes and key subjects being dropped because headteachers are required to hire more under-qualified staff.
The Committee adds that the DfE did not seem to “understand” the pressures facing schools, and that headteachers are already making contingency plans that would see the curriculum narrowed and educational trips scaled back in order to balance the books.
Meg Hillier, chair of the Committee, said that the Department for Education’s “grand plans” risked jeopardising the futures of pupils unless they are considered against the “real world” implications they will bring about.
“[The report] sets out more evidence of what increasingly appears to be a collective delusion in Government about the scope for further efficiency savings in public services,” she added.
“Unrealistic efficiency targets imposed on the NHS, together with weak leadership from the centre, have caused long-term damage to the finances of NHS trusts struggling to meet increasing demand.
“Government must not allow this to happen in schools but there are troubling similarities in its approach – similarities the Department for Education is unwilling to recognise.
“It must not be deaf to the experiences of head teachers who, as we heard in evidence, have already had to make potentially damaging cuts in areas such as maintenance, teacher recruitment and pastoral services.
“The Education Funding Agency’s record on intervention, as well as its failure to evaluate whether its interventions are helping schools to address financial risk, does not inspire confidence.”
Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said the report showed the Government was “burying its head in the sand” rather than listening to the concerns of schools.
She added that “vulnerable children”, including those with special educational needs, would be worst affected, as she accused the DfE of spending billions on new free schools that could be otherwise allocated to easing financial pressures on existing schools.
A DfE spokesman said: "We have protected the core schools budget in real terms since 2010, with school funding at its highest level on record at more than £40bn in 2016-17 – and that is set to rise, as pupil numbers rise over the next two years, to £42 billion by 2019-20.
“These protections, and the wider investment in the school system, mean that spending per pupil will be over 50 per cent higher in real terms in 2020 than it was in 2000, as set out by the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies.
“We recognise that schools are facing cost pressures, and we will continue to provide support to help them use their funding in the most cost effective ways, so that every pound of the investment we make in education has the greatest impact."