This week saw one of Lambeth’s best attended public meetings of recent years, focused on one of the biggest threats facing the borough: huge planned government cuts to local school budgets.
Organised by the parent-led Fair Funding For All Schools in Lambeth campaign, the gathering at Sunnyhill Primary School on Wednesday drew over 250 people. This grassroots group, part of a national network, has grown rapidly in just a few weeks in response to planned government changes to the funding formula that decides how much money each school in England receives. This may sound initially like a very technical and very dull process, but it has enormous consequences as the formula ultimately decides how many staff each school has, what support it can offer to disadvantaged children and the number of pupils in each classroom.
This is why the government changes are so alarming. As Cllr Claire Holland wrote last week, the tinkering with this formula could rob Lambeth of up to £24 million and inflict steep cuts on all our local schools. In my ward in Vassall near Brixton, an area with high levels of poverty and deprivation, these cuts will see three local schools – Reay, Christchurch and St John Divine – lose a projected £300,000 from their combined budgets which equates to the cost of employing 11 teachers. Whichever way you look at this, it’s devastating as it means almost certainly fewer staff, bigger class sizes, less upkeep of the buildings and fewer resources in the schools. And what is especially galling is that this comes after two decades of steady improvement over the past decade under Labour councils which has taken us from being one of the worst educational authorities in the country to one of the best.
At the meeting on Wednesday, the concern of parents and teachers was clear in the passion of the speakers. Many feared that arts courses would be cut back to nothing, others pointed out that recent tightening of spending had already put pressure on budgets – we heard from teachers that some schools were already asking parents to get their children to bring paper to school. How can that be something that a leading Western economy can be happy with?
There is a clear solution to this problem. The government has the money to reverse the impact of these cuts as they have announced plans to spend over £300 million on expanding grammar schools (which all the evidence shows provide worst outcomes for poorer students). This money could be transferred to existing schools to even out funding across the country: it wouldn’t require taxes to rise or other services to suffer, Ministers could just drop their unnecessary obsession with grammar schools and put all children first. Instead, they are punishing our schools for being successful.
There is sadly little sign that the Tories are listening. None of their Lambeth councillors bothered to attend the meeting and local Tories have actually supported these cuts. In contrast, dozens of Labour councillors were at the meeting, which also heard from Lambeth Labour leader Lib Peck and local MP Helen Hayes, as well as receiving a message of support from Streatham MP Chuka Umunna. As all the Labour representatives at the meeting said, we are fighting these cuts: we are putting pressure on ministers, we are raising awareness through leaflets and door knocking, and we have a petition that has already ratcheted up more than 850 signatures (please sigh here!).
I strongly believe that this government can be persuaded to change its mind. Last year a campaign by councils like Lambeth forced the scrapping of plans for the forced academisation of schools. Given the passion I saw in Sunnyhill this week, I have no doubt that if parents, teachers and councillors work together we can end this serious threat that is putting the future of local children at risk.
Councillor for Vassall ward