John Tomsett, headteacher of Huntington School in York, wrote a Tes article detailing the drastic measures he had to take in order to avoid a £800,000 predicted deficit.
It outlines how his school has been left with a leaking roof, fewer teachers and a vastly restricted curriculum.
But, for someone who has been in school leadership roles since the late 1990s, why do finances feel so strained now – when per-pupil funding used to be so much lower? “You could argue that we’re cutting from what the base should be,” he says. “I wouldn’t say it’s a high base – it was chronically underfunded before Blair.”
But he thinks that the government could have given more thought as to how the extra money for schools was spent when it did begin to flow. “In around 2007, there was a pot of £55 million,” Tomsett recalls, referring to “an extraordinary fund to support the development of diplomas, one of the last things that the Labour Party did”.
He secured £3 million to build a media centre in the city, featuring a theatre and editing suites. The centre is still used by local schools – but the diplomas have long since disappeared. He says: “This stuff was, ‘I’ve just got an idea,’ and, ‘Here’s £55 million for it.’ And now, I think that largesse has largely disappeared, and maybe quite rightly. That £55 million was for developing those courses, which as soon as the Conservative government came in 2010 were binned.”
The 2000s also saw teacher salaries increase in a bid to make the profession more attractive. According to a report by Incomes Data Services, teaching went from being outside the top five most popular graduate professions pre-1999 to being the most popular choice in 2005. And this played a crucial role in increasing the profession’s talent pool, says Tomsett – in sharp contrast to the situation today.
He says: “I remember six years ago, before the money started to dry up, a one-year maternity post for PE had 131 applications. I just put [a similar] one out and got four.”
Another recent job advert attracted 12 applicants, of whom half “had no chance of ever making the shortlist”. He adds: “It’s the second if not the third time we’ve advertised. That’s the trouble.”
It grates that the government is still investing in schemes that, in his eyes, offer poor value. He cites the £41 million being pumped into maths mastery: the East Asian maths programme found by the Education Endowment Foundation to offer one month’s extra progress on average. “If you get good maths teaching, it probably doesn’t cost you £41 million,” Tomsett says.
He worries about the impact of the financial pressures on his teachers. “We’ve got bigger classes. Every time you’re marking a classroom of books, you’ve got to do 32 instead of 26 – do that across 11 groups that you teach in a fortnight and that’s 66 extra books you’ve got to mark.”
His response to the cash squeeze is to focus resources on strengthening his teaching workforce. “What we’ve done relentlessly when there’s been less and less money is to focus on the quality of teaching…Having brilliant CPD, and ringfencing salaries.”
A Department for Education spokesperson says: “We are investing an additional £1.3 billion in schools’ funding, over and above existing plans, with core schools’ funding rising from almost £41 billion in 2017-18 to £43.5 billion in 2019-20.”