There can be little doubt now that we are on the brink of a full-blown school funding crisis. While the government continues to use the "record levels of investment" line, tellingly they have not contested the £3 billion black hole identified by the National Audit Office, nor the 8 per cent real-term cuts facing schools by 2020.
Instead, the Department for Education has proposed that schools should look to address this shortfall through "efficiency savings". That’s right: the solution lies in changing your paper supplier or visiting the ‘U-Switch’ website to find a better deal on your gas and electricity.
Such a suggestion is not just unjustifiable: it’s insulting and reveals a worrying misunderstanding of how schools operate. Even when schools were not facing the budgetary pressures they are currently under, they have always sought make every penny count – this is simply what headteachers and school business managers do. The idea that up until now schools have just been frittering money away is a nonsense.
Cuts are barely concealed
School leaders have always been acutely aware that the money they spend is on behalf of the children they serve and made decisions on this basis. They are used to having to justify how money is spent in school, whether this is through preparing the annual pupil premium report for the school website, seeking agreement from the governing body or working with their local authority or MAT – none of this is new.
There is no getting away from the fact that the vast majority of a school’s budget is spent on staffing, and this is where savings are now having to be made. As we enter that time of the year where teachers find out their classes and timetables for next year, many are beginning to see first-hand how the cuts will affect them.
I heard recently of how the deputy and assistant headteacher in one school had just been told that they were going to be back in class full-time, five days a week from September. This means that those senior leaders are somehow going to have to combine their not unsubstantial leadership responsibilities with a full-time teaching commitment, including all the planning, marking and preparation that comes with that. As one of them remarked to me, “I just cannot see how I can make this work...something will have to give.”
Of course, this pressure affects teachers at all levels as the trickle down effects are felt. There is still the same amount to do as before, just fewer people and less time to do it. There is a very real danger these cuts will jeopardise any progress the government has made, or will be able to make when it comes to tackling excessive teacher workload.
Pupils miss out the most
The indirect consequences of this are significant too. Take Continuing Professional Development (CPD) as just one example. Many schools have successfully adopted coaching and mentoring models to improve practice, and ultimately pupil outcomes. But these rely on sufficient capacity in the school to release teachers to work together – a capacity that is coming under increasing pressure.
This is not simply a teacher issue. It cannot be in the best interests of our pupils to have fewer staff working longer hours with less CPD and resources.
So what’s the solution? The most obvious one is for the next government to fund schools fully and fairly. This is an unavoidable reality, and for this reason we have made it NAHT’s number one election priority. However, we also need those who seek to hold schools to account to understand and appreciate the reality teachers and leaders are now facing.
Of course, schools should and will do everything in their power to maintain standards, but inspectors and Regional Schools Commissioners need to be acutely aware of the impact this reduction in capacity will have on our schools and those who work within them.
Tomorrow's Tes magazine is a funding cuts special, exploring the consequences of the cash shortfall being felt across the schools sector. It will be on sale in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here