How my school is losing the battle with funding cuts

11th March 2016 at 00:00
Last March, a secondary headteacher took the brave step of opening his school’s finances to TES.

The bleak reality from a leaking roof to cuts in the curriculum and teacher numbers are laid bare in the article below.


Understandably the author chose to remain anonymous. But since then the long term funding prospects for the sector have only got worse – with hundreds of schools that expected to do better under the government’s new funding formula learning they will miss out.


Today as pressure builds on ministers the author of the article below has taken an even more courageous step and decided to reveal his identity.


Explaining his decision this morning John Tomsett, head of Huntington School, York took to Twitter to reveal his school now had “10 fewer teachers with [the] same student numbers”.
Now read what the cumulative impact of six years of spending cuts does to a school.

 

In my school, there are a dozen buckets positioned to catch the rainwater when it cascades through the leaky roof. Meanwhile, neither of our deputy headteachers, who have adjoining offices, can use a fan heater to compensate for the broken heating system – if they both use heaters at the same time, they will blow the electrics in the whole block. The electrics, you see, are broken, too.

In 2011, we lost 82 per cent of our annual recurrent capital grant, which was cut from £160,000 per year to £28,000 per year. Our building was astrologically predestined to fall apart with that reduced level of funding. And it has duly obliged.

If that had been it – if that was where the “austerity” ended – we might have got by. But, of course, that’s not what happened. That’s not what is happening. Austerity is now having a significant impact on the life chances of students: fewer teachers, reduced options and merged classes. And more.

A small, but significant, example: GCSEs and new A levels require new examination board-endorsed textbooks. As a large 11-18 school, we need dozens of sets of new texts over the next two years. Indeed, textbooks are highly recommended by our schools minister, Nick Gibb. But I have little idea how we might find nearly £10,000 to buy the new books. For the first time in my career, our GCSE and A-level students are having to buy their own textbooks.

Welcome to the English education system, austerity-style. We think it is bad now, but over the next few years things look like they are going to get a whole lot worse.

A shock to the system

I went into teaching because discussing literature with interested young people seemed like a good way to make a living. It was as close as I could get to being paid for doing something I enjoyed. That was nearly three decades ago, when all I had to do was teach great lessons and mark students’ essays. My working life was simple.

In 2000, I completed my National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH), and it hardly touched upon school budgets. As a result, when I found myself in charge of a school and a multi-million-pound budget a couple of years later, I knew nothing about funding or about the financial year being split across the academic year. What the hell did five-twelfths and seven-twelfths mean? And why was your revenue budget more crucial than your capital budget? The term AWPU sounded like some amazing feat of defecation. I found out that it meant age-weighted pupil units of funding.

What I didn’t understand when I began as a headteacher was the hugely important relationship between your school budget and the education that you provide for the students who attract that money in the first place.

I soon learned. My first taste of headship came with the rather unsavoury task of balancing a budget. Before I was appointed, the governing body had already done their sums and predicted a £300,000 year-end budget deficit. They had made the irrevocable decision that we had to reduce most year groups by one whole teacher’s-worth of classes. It meant Set 4 and Set 5 being combined in certain subjects in a number of year groups.

It was then that I had my first glimpse of the educational impact of financial cuts: behaviour in those combined groups, especially in Year 9, was predictably shocking. It was absolute chaos.

It is nigh on impossible to prevent cuts impacting upon our students’ life chances 

Seven months later, the financial year end saw a £150,000 surplus. The governors had been £450,000 out in their financial predictions. Those classes hadn’t needed to be combined. Those students suffered because amateurs were in charge of the finances.

I pledged not to let that happen again. I made a promise to learn how to run a multi-million-pound budget.

Back in the days when he was director-general of the BBC, I heard Greg Dyke say to an assembled audience of senior school leaders: “Don’t leave the money to anyone else, it’s too important.” It was one of the greatest pieces of advice I had ever heard. No matter how idealistic new headteachers might be, how determined they are that improving teaching and learning will always be the priority, if they don’t have a really good understanding of the money, they will come a cropper.

Over the years, I have developed a deep understanding of our school budget. I am numerate and can navigate my way around a school budget sheet with relative ease.

My expertise is still, however, teaching and learning. It is the same with the majority of other heads. Hence, when it comes to making cuts, most headteachers are operating at the very margins of their skill set. Even for the most competent, it is nigh on impossible to prevent cuts impacting upon our students’ life chances. Yet for the past six years, cuts are all we have known.

In the firing line

Back in May 2010, when the coalition government came to power, I knew that the future looked bleak for education spending. I remember asking Malcolm Trobe, now interim general secretary at the Association of School and College Leaders’ and a funding expert, what it meant for schools. He said that the worst hit would be large, 11-18, non-Building Schools for the Future (BSF) schools with two or three specialist designations.

We were a 1,500-student school with Raising Attainment Transforming Learning School (RATL), Humanities College and Leading Edge status. Oh, and we had an ageing building to boot. These designations brought in £280,000 per year in extra funding. That money soon went. We wanted to become a teaching school. We couldn’t because we were not “outstanding”, according to Ofsted.

“But what about the pupil-premium funding?” I hear you, and the politicians, cry. Well, the pupil-premium funding is old money recirculated. We used to have the Standards Fund. On some commercial finance software, they haven’t even bothered to change the name and pupil-premium money sits within the old Standards Fund code.

Pupil premium funding isn’t extra money; it’s just part of the money. In a meeting with David Laws, who was schools minister at the time, just before the 2015 election, he all but admitted that to me.

So, on 14 October 2010, with George Osborne’s Comprehensive Spending Review looming, I predicted to my colleagues at a full staff meeting that we would have to make a 10 per cent cut in the annual budget over the Parliament. That was a cool £700,000. By the beginning of 2015 I had managed to cut £332,000 (the government had not cut as fast as I had predicted; the cuts were spread over two terms instead of one) – although that saving equated to less in our outgoings due to inflation. I did this through a mixture of sensible renegotiating of contracts, hard-nosed cuts to non-essentials and a reduction of four teachers, from 96 full-time equivalent (FTE) teachers to 92.

A key factor in making these cuts was the generosity of spirit among my colleagues. They all agreed to teach an extra hour a week. This gave me the equivalent of four extra teachers’-worth of lessons, or £180,000. Beyond that, these cuts occurred almost unnoticed by colleagues. One of my subject leaders commented to me recently that she had no idea how I had reduced our spending that much without her realising it.

What had gone were mostly things at the margin: the £15,000 capitation bid pool for subject-based extraordinary curriculum developments (in essence, that was a cut to pedagogic innovation), and the extra classes that ensured our most vulnerable students learned in specialist small groups. The number of A-level groups were reduced, too – where once we would have timetabled two groups of 13 students, we settled for one group, double the size.

I didn’t enter the profession to lay people off 

But then there was the one compulsory redundancy. It was a harrowing procedure, and the emotional cost to all those whose jobs were imperilled was awful to see.

I didn’t enter the profession to lay people off.

So, by the beginning of 2015, we had cut all there was left to cut before it would begin to impact upon students and staff more emphatically. And then came the election.

The election campaign saw politicians of all hues make claims about school funding that were misleading. Their promises of flat cash settlements and no reduction in our funding levels were disingenuous. If income remains the same but costs rise, your spending power is reduced. It’s simple economics.

When the Conservatives were elected in May 2015, it was clear that we had to find another £330,000 of savings – having already cut £332,000 from the budget in the last Parliament. The 2017-2018 financial year will see us spend £662,000 per year less in real terms than we spent in 2010.

According to the Bank of England inflation calculator at the time of writing, if our 2010-11 total budget income of £7,294,626 had kept pace with inflation and we had the same spending power in 2015 as we had in 2010, our total budget would be £8,327,474. Our 2015-16 total budget income is £7,567,337, which is a cut in real terms of 10.04 per cent.

As a headteacher, there are times to be completely transparent with colleagues and times when you privately harbour the bad news for the benefit of everyone else. With the cut in school budgets due to hit us over the next four years, it was time to tell people straight about our plight.

The thing is, when it comes to cutting school spending, reducing staffing levels is the most effective measure. Staffing makes up 81 per cent of our budget. If I cut one member of staff in year one, that saves £45,000 in that first year and over a four-year budget that cut in staffing saves £180,000. And teachers know that.

I didn’t have to look far for evidence that we were not alone. From Brighton to Crawley to London to Manchester to Leeds, there were media stories of school teacher redundancies. Sam Freedman, TES columnist and Michael Gove’s erstwhile special adviser, tweeted that 2016 would “be bloody” for schools.

I was honest with my colleagues. I asked them to listen hard and pay attention. I took them through all the figures. I pointed out how we had the biggest carry-forward in the city, how we were the envy of my headteacher colleagues because of the cuts we had made back in 2010. The hard truth, however, was this: if we didn’t take action now, we would be £800,000 in the red by the end of the 2018-19 financial year. We needed to reduce our number of FTE teachers by four, from 92 to 88, by September 2017 in order to remain solvent.

Running out of options

There were other measures, too. We have just finished the Year 10 options process for September 2016. In the past few years, we have accommodated students’ choices in 41 classes across four option blocks. This year is different. This year, we have had to make budget cuts. This year, students’ choices will be allocated in 33 classes across three option blocks. With five periods per class, that saves us 40 teaching periods, or one whole teacher. In hard monetary terms, that saves £45,000 per year.

The A-level options choices have been similarly culled. Another eight classes gone. Our ability to support those students who take A levels having attained the basic five grade Cs at GCSE is all but gone.

Our performance at AS and A level is significantly above expectations on all official Department for Education measures. Many of our students from socio-economically deprived backgrounds become first-generation university successes. We serve our community well. Well, we did.

Not only are students’ choices reduced, but they will also now be learning in larger classes. Teachers will be teaching four more students in each class. That’s four more books to mark. That’s four more students to manage. That’s four more sets of parents to see on parents’ evening. Cutting teachers leads to larger class sizes, leads to increased workload. The euphemistic term “efficiency savings” just means fewer people doing more.

The incremental cuts have begun to impact upon the school’s culture. Flowers for the long-term poorly and new parents, gone. Staff Christmas dinner, gone. Training day lunches, gone. Student reward vouchers, gone.

Each cut saves a small amount of money which, cumulatively, becomes significant. The savings on the balance sheet are clear, but the true cost to the school is much harder to determine.

The term ‘efficiency savings’ just means fewer people doing more 

Our fire alarm system is aged. The sensors in the library are failing one by one. We’ve had eight false fire alarms already this year. Eight occasions when the learning rhythm of the day was disrupted. Eight times students and teachers have lost valuable learning time. We have not got the £80,000 we need to replace the system, so it limps on, randomly disturbing the school’s studious climate.

The increase in workload and the growing thanklessness of being a teacher have combined to create the most corrosive and insidious impact of the cuts. Teachers are quietly withdrawing their discretionary effort.

Of course, teaching is the thing that matters most, but going beyond the cycle of teach, mark, plan, repeat is becoming too much for those of us who have been in the profession for decades, and it is unthinkable for youthful colleagues who still choose to have a life. Why take a school trip to France, with all that entails, and lose three days of your half-term holiday?

Since 2010, teachers have experienced a real terms cut in salary of around 10 per cent. The diktat from central government that no one can be guaranteed a pay increase and that all pay increases are performance-related has been unhelpful. Delegating responsibility for pay to governing bodies was masterful; it anticipated the cuts in funding and allowed government to abrogate responsibility for pay decisions. If you don’t get a pay rise, blame the governors and the headteacher – it’s got nothing to do with the DfE.

At our school, we have the expectation that every teacher will receive the annual pay rise. Only in extraordinary circumstances are teachers denied pay progression. That means a total annual pay increase of over £50,000 per year. Despite the consciously generous approach to paying staff, they don’t appreciate that largesse. A universal 1 per cent pay rise hardly makes up for the numerous pay-freeze years since 2011.

You can’t find savings for these rises by flattening leadership structures. Teaching and learning responsibility payments are vital to maintaining a supply of good teachers. Subject-based TLRs help recruit and retain staff with specialist curriculum knowledge. As recruiting new staff becomes increasingly difficult, a TLR payment is an attractive incentive for high-quality young teachers to move into their first leadership and management role. You remove TLR posts at your peril.

The future looks bleak

In what state is education now? In the largest school in one of the richest cities in the UK, in the fifth largest economy in the world, you can see what state my school is in: I fear for those in less “privileged” circumstances.

Back in 2010, academy-chain leaders who envisioned the future and were attracted by the title of CEO are now reaping the financial rewards. They have the funding to attract the best teachers. As they monopolise the teacher labour market, they turn around less fortunate schools with the profession’s shiniest and best practitioners. They subsequently attract even more money.

If you had envisioned the future and were repulsed by it, you and your school are now paying the price for sticking to your principles. A future where the English state-school system is run by a handful of huge academy chains is a real possibility.

I have fought the government cuts. I don’t consider it a victory to be predicting to break even. The losses along the way are too great. And the future is far from secure. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. The next educational decade is for the entrepreneurial school leader. Only the financially fit will survive.


 

Share this article on Facebook or Twitter with #ToYouFromTES to be entered into a draw to win a TES digital subscription for 2017. 

Comments

Get Tes online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to Tes online and the Tes app for just £1.90 per week.
 
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off Tes Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the Tes online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order today