Academies cut curriculum and staff as budgets shrink
Scores of academy chains are being forced to take drastic measures to save money as budgets are squeezed, TES research reveals.
More than half of the 113 multi-academy trusts (MATs) that responded to Freedom of Information requests said that they were having to cut school staff, to reduce their schools’ curriculum or to make back-office savings as they struggled to make ends meet.
The findings reflect the wider education landscape, where heads are having to make increasingly tough decisions to cope with rising costs and real-terms funding cuts.
Jobs under threat
Of the 113 MATs that responded – with responsibility for some 800 schools – 46 said that they would be forced to make cuts to staff and/or the curriculum.
More than a quarter (29) said that they would have to cut teachers, 41 said they would shed support staff and 19 said that they would make cuts to the curriculum.
A senior leader from a prominent academy chain, who asked not to be named, questioned whether central government was facing the same budgetary constraints that it expected schools to deal with.
“There are no two ways about it, times are tough for all of us and we’re having to make adjustments to ride out the storm,” he said. “One has to ask if the Education Funding Agency and the Department for Education are under the same cost pressures.”
The research also reveals that 31 academy chains expect to have at least one of their schools in deficit by 2016-17. Two of the MATs said that they would each have nine schools running a deficit by this time.
In the November spending review, chancellor George Osborne announced that there would be cuts to the education services grant (ESG), which is handed directly to academies to cover the cost of services that would otherwise be provided by local authorities. The £1.02 billion ESG budget fell by £200 million in 2015, and Mr Osborne spelled out plans to slash the pot by a further £600 million by 2020.
The cut in funding, on top of rising pension and national insurance contributions, as well as a freeze in per-pupil spending, means that all schools are contending with a dramatic squeeze to their budgets.
According to headteachers’ leaders and the respected thinktank the Institute for Fiscal Studies, schools will be working with cuts of 5 per cent or more.
Malcolm Trobe, interim general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that, faced with such reductions, many academy chains would be forced into making “very difficult decisions” when it came to staffing and curriculum.
“This is the first year when all the big hits come in, impacting school budgets, so they will have to be extremely careful about how they use their resources,” he said. “Our own surveys show that schools are having to cut some staff – either support staff or teachers. But if they are cutting teachers, that has a knock-on effect on what curriculum you can offer.
“Teacher numbers and the curriculum are linked. It has a big impact on minority subjects, especially at GCSE and A-level.”
Teachers’ workload would also be affected, Mr Trobe added: “The bigger the classes, the more marking they will have to do.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said that the “core schools budget” had been protected and many academies were “drawing on excellent practice in other schools to deliver value for money”.
What the chains said
“The academies will be expected to make reductions across a range of areas including all of those listed to operate within funding constraints.”
“We are reviewing all aspects of our finances to avoid the anticipated problems over the next three to five years, including looking at staffing levels and back-office savings.”
“All [of our academies] are under pressure and all use different strategies to focus spending on development areas while cutting back elsewhere. The local government pension scheme is a major burden.”
“We currently have two academies that are running staff restructure initiatives, although many of our other academies have growing pupil numbers and are therefore recruiting. As a trust initiative, we are reviewing admin and finance structures to improve efficiency.”