14 years of the Tories – education and children’s services

UNISON’s national secretaries reflect on the disastrous effect of Conservative government on their sectors

Head of education Mike Short on how staff, pupils and students are all paying the price for a government that has abandoned education

The Conservative government has overseen a dramatic decline in the state of the education sector.

Schools have been grappling with insufficient funding ever since 2010. As school budgets reach breaking point, there are inevitable consequences for the quality of education being provided to young people, as well as the working conditions of school staff.

UNISON research has shown that funding has fallen significantly below 2010 levels, and a pupil who started school in 2010 will have lost out on an average of £5,384 of funded education and support as a result of budget cuts.

On a daily basis, this means larger class sizes, reduced access to student support services, cuts in extra-curricular activities provision, like after-school clubs and trips, and reduced specialist support for special educational needs and disability (SEND) pupils.

As a result of all of this, our members in schools have made clear to us that it has become far more difficult to educate and support children and young people.

Pupils and staff struggling 

This has been compounded by the cost of living crisis – members often report that they are buying children food out of their own pockets, because they come to school not having eaten. And these are members who themselves often struggle – stuck on low pay and term-time only contracts, which make working in schools far less attractive than it used to be. No wonder so many are leaving for better paid jobs in supermarkets.

Meanwhile, the government’s abandonment of investment in school buildings means pupils and staff are learning and working in unsafe buildings, many of which contain asbestos and materials that were never intended to still be in use. The ‘RAAC’ crisis in 2023 was just the tip of the iceberg.

Further and higher education

It’s not just schools. In higher education, the government relies on the unfair tuition fees system, which helps nobody – not the students who are deterred from attending university, and not the universities which have seen their income decline. Universities across the UK are now making massive job cuts.

And the current state of further education in the UK could accurately be described as dire. Adult education funding has been cut by half, damaging the UK’s ability to retrain and upskill workers as the nature of the economy constantly changes; 16 to 19-year-olds fare little better, as colleges lack the funding and resources to teach the vital skills needed for the 21st century economy.

Staff in FE in England have seen their wages drop by nearly 40% in real terms over the past 14 years, leading to a crisis in recruitment and retention. Those who do stay, struggle to cover their daily living costs and the impact of high workloads leads to high stress levels.

At the other end of the spectrum, early years and childcare services have long been neglected. Pay is stuck at the national living wage – not the real living wage that our members need – and private equity firms have been allowed to come in and dominate the market, leaving provision to the whims of profit maximisation, with little focus on the needs of local communities.

A robust education system is integral to any society. But rather than support our education sector, its pupils, parents, students and staff, this government has systematically picked it apart.

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