Schools may be unable to provide catch-up learning because they have been forced to use government funds to plug the hole in finances left by implementing Covid safety measures, heads have warned.
In June, the Department for Education (DfE) announced a £1 billion package to help tackle the impact of teaching time lost owing to the pandemic – including £650 million to be shared across state schools.
But the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) has warned that, because the government has so far "refused to reimburse" schools for the cost of implementing Covid safety measures, this portion of the funding could be "almost entirely wiped out".
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Asked if this could mean schools are unable to provide catch-up learning, Geoff Barton, ASCL general secretary, said: "Schools will make decisions on how they manage their budgets but there is obviously a risk of that happening when funding is so tight."
He added that schools are "walking on a tightrope of conflicting priorities".
The union is urging the government to reconsider its position on Covid safety costs, and has forwarded schools' feedback to the DfE and Treasury.
ASCL pointed out one example of a multi-academy trust with 2,000 pupils and two schools that needed to spend around £50,000 per term on creating a Covid-safe environment.
"This equates to £75 per pupil across the academic year, which is close to the £80 per pupil the government has allocated to schools to support catch-up programmes following the national lockdown," the union said.
Other examples include:
- A secondary school with 700+ pupils told the union that its Covid safe preparation costs for the autumn term would be around £39,000.
- An 11-18 academy with 950 pupils will be spending more than £30,000 to make returning to school safe this term.
- A secondary school with 1,600+ students told ASCL that its costs would be £43,000 for this term.
ASCL asked what measures schools and colleges are putting in place. These include:
- Enhanced cleaning (additional 22.5 hours per week = £13,000 per annum)
- Online ordering system for four year groups and delivery of their lunches to their zones (no shared canteen use)
- Digital textbooks £750 to £1,000 per curriculum area
- Visualisers for most classrooms, at £50 per unit
- Additional teaching assistant time to support complex needs as part of a bubble system
- Small building works to ensure safe outdoor provision (fencing/alterations to entrance and exits)
- Sanitiser stations with liquid and wipes for every classroom and assembly point (estimated £3,000 per term)
- Fogging machines to sanitise common areas and spaces with large volumes of equipment such as sports halls and engineering workshops (wipes and anti-bac sprays are not viable options)
- Additional handwashing facilities (portable units)
- Lidded bins (every room)
- Screens separating staff workstations in shared offices
The union added that schools have raised concerns about the potential cost of supply cover if teachers have to self-isolate.
"This issue is made more problematic because of the difficulties experienced in obtaining Covid tests which means that symptomatic staff have to spend longer away from school than might be necessary," ASCL said.
Mr Barton said: "We suspect the hand of the Treasury in the government's refusal to reimburse schools and colleges for the cost of Covid safety measures. We understand its desperation to protect public finances but this is a false economy.
"It means that schools will have to divert money from elsewhere in their budget which is meant for teaching and learning. The extra funding for catch-up support will be almost entirely negated by the extra costs for safety measures.
"The government will inevitably respond by saying that it is putting an extra £7.1 billion into schools through to 2022-23 but it is important to understand that this spending was planned long before Covid emerged as a threat and that it is absorbed largely by rising pupil numbers, pay awards and other inflationary costs. School funding is extremely tight and budgets cannot sustain significant extra costs.
"We appeal to the government to reconsider this issue and reimburse schools and colleges for the money they have to spend on protecting pupils and staff and minimising the risk of virus transmission. They have done a fantastic job in putting these complex controls in place, and welcoming back all pupils. They really do need the government to back them up."