Andrew Ramanandi: ‘I’m still positive about the future of our state-funded schools’

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Last week, Regionalitics spoke to Mr Ramanandi, Headteacher at St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School in Gateshead and architect of the petition ‘Increase Funding for Schools’. Perhaps surprisingly, Mr Ramanandi vows to remain both positive and hopeful about the long-term prospects for the UK’s state-funded education – despite the evident challenges facing the sector.

‘I’m encouraged because MPs across all parties and all regions are recognising the need to paint a national picture’, he said. ‘We’re all looking to cut staff, cut back on activities for children and non-core enrichment such as music and art. We aren’t in this position because of mismanagement. It’s because the money just isn’t there. This petition and associated debate made that clear: this isn’t about politics.’

But for all his unstilted confidence that the DfE will inevitably concede to real-terms funding increases in primary and secondary schools, a quick look at the data presents one difficult question: how?

Above all else, there’s the frustrating veneer of resistance by Government to truly grasp the gravity of the situation. Ministers blithely continue to draw on comparisons with 1990 and 2000 funding-levels, maintaining that ‘more money is going into our schools than ever before’. Utterly fictitious in real-terms, ‘School Cuts’ monitoring and activism service, maintained by the National Education Union, stress that 9 in 10 schools in England have faced cuts to per-pupil funding since 2015: that’s £5.4bn in real-terms.

One headteacher based in Durham told me that the local authority is facing a budget shortfall of £5.6 million in special educational needs provision over the next financial year, with the money having to come out of the general council budget on a one-off basis. Even in stoutly Conservative authorities, such as West Sussex, rural schools are suffering from unprecedented cut-backs to resources, teaching and non-teaching staff. Ministers are so wrapped-up in fruitless debates around Brexit that they are refusing to listen to the plight of MPs from their own political party.

Information provided by the Commons Library echoes the concerns of the National Head Teachers Association and the National Governance Association, stipulating that ‘there has been a clear decline in spending in the five years from 2012-2013 onwards.’ According to that same Commons Library data, public spending per head on education in 2016-2017 remained highest in London at around £1,600. It was lowest in the South East and South West of England at £1,200.

Even more frustrating was Education Minister Nick Gibb’s concluding remarks in the Commons debate prompted by Mr Ramanandi’s petition. Besides reiterating tired taunts that schools are receiving unprecedented levels of funding when measured by other means, Mr Gibb also suggested that head teachers use a ‘new benchmarking service’ to compare their school’s financial data with similar schools – and spend less money on advertising for recruitment. Gibb was unconcerned that ‘benchmarking’ is a practice used by teachers for many years, and that recruitment advertising swallows a tiny proportion of school’s overall budgets. The overwhelming – and infuriatingly defiant – perception by the Government remains that teachers’ failures to ‘balance the books’ is down to financial mismanagement rather than Government flippancy.

While Mr Ramanandi doesn’t disagree that the debate itself was rather deflating, he tells me that his positivity isn’t because of an immediate expectation that teachers’ demands will be met without delay. Rather, teachers are concentrating on pushing for change in anticipation of the Comprehensive Spending Review.

‘What you’ll actually find is that this isn’t a regional issue: nor is it a case of inner-city areas versus their rural counterparts. Everyone is facing a squeeze’, he said.

‘If you remember “The London Challenge”, a programme launched by the UK’s Labour Government in 2003, that completely transformed the capital’s state education system. That’s why so many MPs outside of London now talk about this ‘fair-funding’ model: the idea that money should be available based on need. Headteachers and MPs nation-wide don’t want to take money away from other schools; they just want more money in the system. They want to see the kind of transformation that took place in London but never reached the outskirts. I’m confident that sooner or later the government will realise boosting educational attainment everywhere is in everyone’s interests.’

Brexit, of course, is getting in the way for now. But the National Head Teachers Association continue to take ‘all steps necessary to achieve the aim of a 10-year funding plan for schools.’ The NAHT annual conference recently backed a motion committing the union to industrial action if persistent underfunding is not addressed in the spending review. NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman told the BBC that the union will ‘work with government, advise and campaign.’ Meanwhile, Durham Councillor Olwyn Gunn, Cabinet member for children and young people’s services, added that she hoped ‘intense lobbying will result in increased funding from the 2020/21 Comprehensive Spending Review’.

‘This is why I’m positive’, Mr Ramanandi admits, ‘because I know that the messages delivered by teachers and local authorities nationwide will reach the DfE loud and clear. We live in very uncertain times. It’s difficult to know who will even be in power by the Autumn. But our children still need to be educated. This petition and debate showed that education is a topic MPs care very strongly about. Education underpins everything else in society. It has to move up the Government’s priority list.’

The onus now, of course, falls squarely upon the heads of Government. Only time will tell if Mr Ramanandi’s position is justified. I’m sure many teachers will not be feeling quite so reassured.