Dear Gavin Williamson,
As a primary headteacher in my third year – two of which have been Covid years – I have found myself with many big decisions to make. Whether it is how to ensure that the children have the best education possible remotely, or how to support my staff so that their wellbeing isn’t shot to pieces, I have found my time as head hard but deeply rewarding.
That is until my mind moves to the school budget.
If you ask me what has kept me awake at night the most over the past few years, worrying that one of my members of staff or pupils could end up seriously ill with Covid has been a major concern. The thing that keeps me up at night most, though – with no clear end in sight – is the budget: how can we balance it? How do we ensure there is no deficit? What should we cut next?
Lots of my fellow headteachers are in a very similar position. We have in-year deficits, we are using dwindling past carry-forwards to paper over the gaps, and we constantly have to work out what we can cut just to make it through another year.
School funding: We can't balance the budget
The thing is, as a headteacher – as a teacher of any sort – you want to fix the problem. You want to find the solution. You don’t want to admit defeat.
So when you are challenged with the idea that you can’t balance your budget, you find every solution possible to do so. You cut out as much as possible. You push and push the limits to prove that you can do it – you can fix the impossible.
But here lies our problem. For, as long as headteachers try to prove that they can balance the budget, and find as many creative ways to do so as possible, they leave the government with a false sense of belief that it is all all right. Schools are being given enough to make it work.
If and when my school sets a deficit budget – I have managed to defy the odds for two years, but it is getting close – we have to create a recovery plan showing how we pay back any money borrowed, and how we will cope in the future. And that, right there, is the reason why I can’t just go into deficit – I have no way of recovering afterwards.
I took over a school with a group of staff who are fantastic, who have been teaching for years, who care about the school and the community and who believe in what we are doing. They know their craft and they know how to help children learn best.
But they are also expensive. Many have been teaching for more than 10 years, and the majority are, quite rightly, on the upper pay scale. The general rule is: if your staffing costs are less than 89 per cent of your budget, then it should end up balancing. Mine are 90 per cent.
One per cent surely doesn’t make that much difference? My in-year deficit next year is more than £60,000. The school is oversubscribed, so it isn’t that we are underfunded as a result of a falling roll.
Who suffers from the budget cuts?
So I must save money other ways. But who suffers? How can you have an awe-inspiring curriculum with no money? How can you ensure there’s enough money to subsidise trips for those who need it (those who might not be pupil premium, but are only just above that line) without its eating into your budget?
How can you help the child who really should have an education health and care plan, and needs one-to-one support in the classroom, but has had their EHCP refused? You need to fund the one-to-one support that you will give the child anyway (because they need it) so that they can learn – and not interrupt the learning of others.
What are we left to cut out now? We need new globes? How much are they? How much? Can’t we make do with the old ones that don’t spin and are out of date?
I’ve asked my teachers to make sure the subjects that they lead follow our curriculum-intent statement and inspire a love of learning. I am genuinely embarrassed when they come to me with great ideas and I have to put them off – not because they wouldn’t be fantastic, not because of Covid, but because we have no money to provide the few things that they might need to realise this wonderful plan they’ve come up with.
In my school, as in many others, the teachers and I use our own money to buy resources that the children need. Our PTA is wonderful and raises so much money for us. And, of course, the budget is not just down to the headteacher of a school – the responsibility is joint with governors.
But we are beginning to talk about asking parents for a voluntary contribution annually, as a state school. I am asked what we can do about expensive members of staff. I am asked to share with parents how terrible our financial situation is, so that they can potentially give more to support the school. How is that right? How is that OK?
As a headteacher, making it work in order to show that I can solve any problem no longer feels moral or ethical. The education system is in a real crisis when it comes to money, and what we need to be saying – or rather shouting – is: HELP!
This isn’t about short-term help to close the gaps that Covid has brought for many children in education. This is a problem that dates back pre-Covid, and that is in desperate need of solutions, before the deal our children receive in school becomes a much worse one.
The author is the headteacher of a school in North London