By his own admission, Andrew Baisley describes the Camden school where he works as among the better funded in the country. Yet he recalls seeing how, “Over four years, bits of our service offering have been closed down. I was aware that the National Funding Formula [NFF] was coming, and that it was going to make our situation even more difficult, on top of what was effectively a real terms per-pupil spending freeze.”
In his capacity as a member of the NUT’s campaigns team, Baisley set about organising a form of protest against government decisions on funding for London schools – but he soon realised the scale of the issue at hand required a different response. “I thought we really needed a national campaign. I’d had this idea of making a map showing every school in the country, illustrating how even when schools were having to make smaller cuts, they were being very badly funded to start with.”
Working in conjunction with several other unions, Baisley’s idea emerged in October 2016 as the School Cuts website, which allows visitors to enter their postcode and instantly see whether any of their local schools will have had their budgets reduced by 2019, and if so, how many teachers they will need to have shed as a result.
“We initially sought to show the potential impact of the proposed NFF in conjunction with the flat funding over the course of the last Parliament,” Baisley explains. “We used National Audit Office calculations to work out school costs, such as rising National Insurance contributions, the Teachers’ Pensions scheme and the Apprenticeship Levy, and continued to develop it as more proposals were brought forward by the government.”
The campaign began to attract some notice, but Theresa May’s announcement of a snap election the following April subsequently boosted the site’s visibility dramatically. As well as updating the site’s costings to reflect the different parties’ manifesto commitments, Baisley and his colleagues worked to secure pledges from election candidates to oppose further school cuts. Many did, and even when a pledge wasn’t forthcoming, in some cases the campaign still seemed to have an impact.
“One candidate managed to lose the email and hadn’t signed up,” says Baisley. “They later got back to us, really urgently, having met people asking them why they hadn’t signed it. I remember thinking that if there was this much anger about the issue, it could change people’s minds when it comes to voting.”
Baisley puts the website’s success down to one thing in particular. “There’s one set of figures that almost everyone has referred to, which has helped the message about the level of cuts get through. With campaigns like this, people will often rely on different datasets, which makes it seem as though people are arguing over what the situation actually is. I know that headteachers are at their wits’ end dealing with cuts. They can now see that there’s this big, ongoing campaign, which has emboldened them to speak out.”
Has anyone quibbled with the campaign’s figures? “Some MPs told us our data was out of date, but they often tended to rely on out of date press releases themselves, to be honest.” Baisley replies. “We wanted to show that these cuts are general, almost universal. We’ve had people ask whether they can check through our numbers and data sources, which we’re happy for them to do. We’ve tried to be as open as possible.”