A photograph of an elementary school teacher in Oklahoma went viral this summer. The reason? She was “panhandling”, or begging for money, holding up a sign saying “Teacher Needs School Supplies! Anything Helps. Thank You”, to raise awareness of the budget problems facing education in the state.
The teacher, Teresa Danks, said she usually spent about $2,000 (nearly £1,500) of her $35,000 (around £26,000) salary each school year buying materials for her students. That’s in common with some 20 per cent of teachers in the US, where the average personal outlay each year is $600 (around £440).
It’s a situation we have looked on in horror from this side of the Pond. But no longer, it seems.
A survey by Tes and the National Education Union reveals a growing reliance on teachers to prop up school budgets. They are not only buying stationery and books but also donating cash and giving up their weekends to paint classrooms.
The amounts of money being donated by teachers isn’t trivial either – it’s more than £1,000 in some cases. Some staff are even being asked to donate regular amounts via direct debit – something we know parents have been asked to do in a number of schools.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, points out that teachers have always spent small amounts of their own money on supplies. For example, he says, teachers on holiday have always bought interesting objects for their classrooms. But the Tes-NEU survey reveals that 94 per cent say they are having to pay for classroom equipment themselves, with many spending hundreds of pounds from their own pocket. “This is a terrible indictment of where we are in terms of school funding,” says Barton.
Many teachers now feel there’s a moral obligation, or what one calls an “unspoken expectation”, that they will do all they can to support their school financially. And that’s the problem. Teachers care about their pupils and want to carry on doing the best for them, despite budget squeezes, so of course they are going to dip into their own pockets to make sure that happens.
To rub salt into the wound, teachers are seeing basic staff “perks” – such as teabags for the staffroom – being withdrawn.
Parents, too, don’t escape. There have been many stories of schools asking them for cash, but a PTA UK survey reveals that they are now being asked to pay for the most basic of items required by their children during the school day – including toilet paper. A large number are being charged to attend their child’s concerts and sports events.
The general election fired a warning shot about the extent of public anger over school funding cuts. Budgets are being protected over the next two years, but most heads would argue that the money is nowhere near enough to make up for the real-terms losses they have suffered in recent years. An extra £1.3 billion is obviously not to be scoffed at, but it’s clear that many schools feel the amount barely skims the surface.
And the money will benefit some schools far more than others, with some of the most needy pupils potentially losing out, thanks to changes to the national funding formula announced by the government last week.
It is unfair to expect teachers to subsidise the basics for what is, after all, supposed to be a publicly funded service – especially after years of the profession’s pay being frozen. Teachers will always want to buy additional items for their classroom, but we need to ensure that is what they are: extras, not necessities.