Writing's on the wall

14th November 2003 at 00:00
This year's funding crisis is hitting the most vulnerable pupils in many schools, where support staff are often the first to go. And Charles Clarke's rescue package for 2004 won't ease the pain, as Wendy Wallace discovers

When Kelsey Park school for boys came out of special measures in 1998, Labour's election slogan at last rang true: things could only get better.

Five years on, with morale and pupil numbers rising and exam results encouraging, the funding crisis has hit hard; things have just got a whole lot worse. Job cuts, increased class sizes and one hour a week lopped off teaching time are the new realities. While the Government is promising better funding for all schools next year, Kelsey Park and others are suffering right now; and it is the least advantaged pupils who are suffering the most.

"The service for some of our most vulnerable boys has been diminished," says Richard Harknett, head of Kelsey Park, in the London borough of Bromley. "You're faced with an invidious choice: sack a maths teacher, or sack a learning support tutor." Two full-time support assistants and one part-time mentor are among those who have lost their jobs here.

Kelsey Park is an anomaly, an "inner-city" school in a leafy suburb. Sited on the edge of suburban Bromley, the school takes students from the neighbouring boroughs of Lewisham, Southwark, Croydon and Lambeth; children from the large detached houses in the immediate area tend to travel to selective or private schools. A third of students at Kelsey Park are entitled to free school meals, a third are from ethnic minorities, and one in 10 has English as an additional language.

At first sight, funding for the current financial year looked encouraging.

But when the school's finance manager, Barbara Hart, looked at the figures in detail, she felt despair. "We needed pound;300,000 more to continue at the level of staffing and provision we had been running at the previous year. We're not exactly flush with money anyway," she says.

The school already had a deficit of pound;250,000, a consequence of its chequered history. Kelsey Park opted out of local authority control to become grant-maintained shortly before failing an inspection in 1996, when the present head took up his post. Named and shamed immediately after New Labour came to power, the school then had a difficult climb out of special measures, finally pulling clear in 1998.

But this year the school found that the pound;138,000 it receives every year from the standards fund for social inclusion, learning support, staff training and recruitment and retention had been withdrawn. The money had been in the budget for the past three years and, although he knew it was ending, Richard Harknett had expected it would be made available in another form. "All those planks I would have thought were central to the Government's strategy and agenda," he says. "Losing the money was a hit we hadn't anticipated." As elsewhere, the cuts were exacerbated by a hike in staffing costs. Managers at the 940-pupil school have set a balanced budget with their pound;3.7 million total funding, but only by cutting support and teaching time and increasing teacher workload. Three teaching posts and "significant amounts" of support have been lost, jeopardising the fragile gains made in recent years.

Cuts would have been greater had it not been for a government leadership incentive grant of pound;125,000, intended for bolstering the senior management team. Such grants are being widely used to bridge the standards fund gap. "It's breaking the spirit of the agreement," says one provincial secondary head, "but I've no alternative."

Several decisions made at Kelsey Park affect the entire school community.

All pupils have lost an hour's curriculum time, down from 25 hours'

teaching to 24, as the first period on Monday mornings has been given over to non-contact time. But it is impossible to fully implement all aspects of the workload agreement, such as providing extra administrative support.

"We've done our best," says Mr Harknett, "but there just isn't the money there to do it."

The language department has lost half its staff - two newly qualified teachers whose contracts were not renewed - so Kelsey Park is no longer able to offer Spanish, only French. "The budget controls the curriculum," says deputy head Nigel Barrow. "It's the tail wagging the dog." An assistant headteacher left at the end of last year and has not been replaced, saving some pound;45,000 but adding to the workload of the remaining senior managers. The head and two deputies are providing all cover this autumn, saving on supply teachers.

Cuts in support and increased class sizes have most effect on the most vulnerable. Despite its rising roll, managers at Kelsey Park have reduced the number of groups in each year from seven to six, meaning a rise in the average class size from around 25 up to 30. "It was a harsh decision.

Teaching staff are finding some of the larger lower sets difficult to manage," says Mr Barrow.

Pupils are feeling the strain, too, says Tina Stancombe, manager of the school's inclusion centre. Though staffing at the centre has been cut, her job was saved. But a male mentor working part-time in the centre lost his post, as did an administrator who supported the centre and the school's special educational needs department. The "induction camp" usually put on for the whole of Year 7 each October has been dropped this year. "We see a vast improvement in the classroom behaviour of the boys we work with," reflects Ms Stancombe. "We work with the ones with educational needs, emotional needs and socio-economic needs. I don't know how the school managed before the centre was here."

At Kelsey Park, every month is now a tightrope act of cash flow and book-balancing. And in schools, as everywhere, it costs to be poor. Kelsey Park wants to apply to become a specialist college in an attempt to attract resources for needy students. But schools serving poor communities struggle to find the pound;50,000 needed to support the application. "We will raise the money," says the head, "but with a great deal of difficulty." Until recently schools with budget deficits have not been eligible to apply for specialist status unless they have an agreed recovery plan with the local education authority; that restriction has now been discarded.

Ken Davis, Bromley's director of education, confirms the impression that the poorest schools have been hardest hit. "If we look at secondary schools, those with the biggest budget problems have invariably been in the areas serving the most disadvantaged children. Inevitably, in trying to contain costs, support has been cut," he says.

Jane Bowman is head of Wintringham school in Grimsby, adversely affected, like Kelsey Park, by increased staffing costs and loss of standards fund grants. Wintringham is a school in challenging circumstances, but GCSE results rose last summer from 10 per cent to 28 per cent gaining five A*-C grades. "We've been successful," says the head, "because we have strategies to support students at all levels. We really are battling against the odds."

But parts of the support are already being swept away on the tide of budget crisis, made worse by falling rolls. The school has lost 2.2 equivalent members of its teaching staff. The rolling programme of refurbishment has ground to a halt as "we can't afford to buy paint", says the head. A vocational GCSE in engineering introduced last year is not on offer to the current Year 10s because it costs too much. Extra study support and holiday sessions for Year 11s have been reduced. "The pressure on us to deliver is immense," says Ms Bowman. "We know how we can do it but we can't do it without funding. It's an impossibility."

The headteacher of Manchester's Abraham Moss high school, David Watchorn, stresses that he is better off than many colleagues. But he has lost five support staff for his 1,138 pupils and is delaying replacing a departed head of PSHE until next year's settlement becomes clear. He says the financial squeeze is creating a "lack of headroom" in meeting the needs of his students, more than half of whom are eligible for free school meals.

"In relation to the Government's ambition to raise achievement in inner-city schools," he says, "I was doing more before than I am now."

Charles Clarke's announcement last month that all schools will receive at least a 4 per cent increase in the next financial year has provided some reassurance for heads. In Bromley, Richard Harknett also stands to benefit from a share of the pound;1.8 million extra announced for the borough, which, like 49 other local authorities in particular need, is to get a cash hand-out. But Ken Davis, who has responsibility for almost 100 schools, is reserving judgment on next year's settlement, saying it is unclear whether the pound;1.8 million is indeed extra money. "We welcome the 4 per cent, but that will mostly be swallowed up by extra costs," he says. "We cannot make any real sense of this until we've got the whole package and know what the overall amount is."


Kelsey Park's situation is mirrored around Britain, according to a recent survey carried out by Professor Alan Smithers and Dr Pamela Robinson of Liverpool University, on behalf of the National Union of Teachers.

Nearly two-thirds of all secondary schools received budget settlements in 200304 that were worse than the previous year, and one in three of the affected schools has reduced staffing as a result, the survey found.

Shedding support staff is a common response to financial crisis, with the secondary schools in the study losing 1,620 support posts, mainly teaching assistants. The simultaneous push to implement the workload agreement means vulnerable pupils lose out. "Support hours are being redistributed away from children with statements and from learning support to carry out the 23 tasks," found the authors of the report.

The 1,970 secondary schools surveyed cut back 3,115 teaching posts; 760 teachers were made redundant. Larger classes are also common, with half the affected schools increasing pupil group numbers.

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