Budget focuses on coronavirus, maths schools and e-books

Freelance workers, including supply teachers, will be able to access benefits more easily during any disruption caused by the coronavirus outbreak, the chancellor of the exchequer has announced. Speaking on 11 March, in a budget statement which was relatively light on new announcements for schools, Rishi Sunak said that such workers would be able to access benefits from day one of their absence (rather than from day eight as at present), and would also be able to claim online rather than by visiting a job centre.

The change relates to contributory Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), which is paid to those ineligible for statutory sick pay (SSP), and who have made sufficient national insurance contributions. Mr Sunak also confirmed a previously announced measure that those who are eligible for SSP would also be able to claim it from day one, rather than from the fourth day of absence as had previously been the case. SSP is payable to employees who earn more than £118 per week.  He also suspended the minimum income rule for self-employed claimants of universal credit.

Elsewhere in the budget, there was further details of the funding that would be available for previously announced initiatives in relation to maths schools, PE and arts teaching. There will be £7million available to open 11 specialist maths schools, with at least one in every region of the country. This will be in addition to £18million of maths school funding which was announced in 2017. Extra money for PE and the arts was originally announced in the Conservative party manifesto for the 2019 general election, and budget documents gave the following details: ‘29 million per year by 2023-24 to support primary school PE teaching and help schools make the best use of their sports facilities, as well as £90 million per year to introduce an Arts Premium from September 2021 to help schools provide high-quality arts programmes and extracurricular activities for pupils’.

Another announcement of interest to schools will be the abolition of VAT charged on digital publications, such as e-books, e-magazines and academic e-journals. The physical equivalents of such publications are already exempt. Budget documents state that the change, which will apply from 1 December 2020, ‘should benefit all who read digitally, including children from poorer backgrounds: nearly 1 in 4 pupils on free school meals read fiction digitally, compared to 1 in 6 of their peers who are not eligible for free school meals.’

One potential area of controversy in Mr Sunak’s budget is that there will be a reduction in the Department for Education’s (DfE) capital budget next year, down from £4.6billion to £4.5billion. Ahead of the budget John McClean, chair of the Joint Union Asbestos Committee, had warned that any reduction in capital spending could harm efforts to tackle the presence of asbestos in school buildings. He said: ‘School budgets are already at breaking point after more than a decade’s funding freeze, and many school buildings are literally crumbling as repairs become unaffordable. This means asbestos could become more accessible in classrooms or be accidentally disturbed. To continue to put the school estate under such pressure by reducing or freezing capital funding again would be irresponsible. We urge the Chancellor to make the health of everyone in schools a priority and to provide adequate capital funding to safely tackle asbestos’. Latest figures from the DfE estimate that 83.5 per cent of schools in England contain asbestos.

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