A QUESTION from a Chichester head teacher about education cuts raised fierce debate at a hustings.
MP candidates had a last chance to woo voters at a packed-out Chichester Cathedral on May 6 – the day before the general election.
After nearly two hours of answering questions, Bishop Luffa head teacher Nick Taunt put the prospective candidates on the spot with a question about education funding.
“Like all secondary school head teachers, I’m very concerned about the government’s real-terms cut in school budgets over the next two years,” he said.
“Because of the decision not to pay for the rise in employer’s national insurance and pensions contributions, my school’s budget next year will be £250,000 less – the equivalent of around seven full-time teachers. How do the candidates suggest I justify this to parents and pupils?”
Conservative candidate Andrew Tyrie was first to answer, affirming West Sussex was the fourth-lowest funded education authority in the country.
“That’s a shocking state of affairs and we have to do something about it here,” he said.
He went on: “On the question of the real-terms cut to the budget, yes all schools are going to have to make some savings and yes it is going to be extremely tough and it’s not only the schools in Chichester.”
He said it was not a result of ‘some callous policy’ and grew quite heated as he spoke of the Tories’ efforts to balance the books.
“This is because we are having to make very tough decisions as we’re still in a climate of running a deficit of five-and-a-half per cent of GDP,” he said.
“If it gets higher than three per cent it’s unsafe always in any economy. We have still only halved it from the unbelievable number of 11 per cent that was inherited in 2010 as the coalition government and if there’s another coalition government they will have to do more.
“This is why I said tough decisions were being taken, not least in education.”
His Labour opponent hit back, describing the coalition government as ‘choking off’ future growth with its education cuts.
“Austerity not only put the brake on but it choked off growth,” said Mark Farwell.
“Public sector and public expenditure in education is in a revenue crisis and what the coalition government did was mortgage our future.”
He said Labour had pledged to ring fence education funding for five to 19 year olds, adding: “Withdrawing money from the education system is a short cut to the poorhouse – low skills, low pay, low output.”
Andrew Smith from the Lib Dems meanwhile said the issue was less about education and more about changing national insurance rates.
He said when tax was discussed people focused on income tax, VAT, corporation tax but national insurance contribution were ‘never ever talked about’.
“Here we’re talking about a rise in employer national insurance contributions and it will affect not just schools but employers who are currently contracted out and I think it will take a lot of people by surprise when it comes into effect,” he said.
UKIP’s Andrew Moncreiff and the Greens’ Jasper Richmond were in agreement the whole education structure needed examining.
“We’ve got to teach children according to their needs and abilities,” said Mr Moncreiff, “rather than finding some dogmatic solution from the top.
“The first thing to do, apart from the money, is to rethink the way we educate our children.”
Mr Richmond described education as ‘an investment in our future and our children’s future’.
He agreed with Mr Moncreiff that people had to look at the structure of the education system and see if it was providing for children.
“The Greens are very proud of our policy on education,” he said, “because we see mixed-ability teaching as the gold standard.”
He said the matter was always going to have to be looked at to decide the local need.
“You can’t just treat it as a spreadsheet, we have to look at it,” he said.
Patria’s Andrew Emerson then went on to say the cut to education was ‘just one example of the type of cuts that are going to be faced by all our public services’.
“It’s not rocket science. Patria pledges to introduce a new higher rate of income tax to 60p in £1 on income above £100,000,” he said, in a bid to fund the deficit.