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‘We’ve cut everything’: governors discuss the school funding crisis
Ever-decreasing budgets, a new national funding formula (NFF) and reports of headteachers asking parents to plug holes in finances – schools in the UK are feeling the pinch.
This leaves many governors with the difficult task of trying to raise standards while having no option but to make cuts. We spoke to three governors to get a frontline perspective on the financial challenges facing schools, and how governors are coping.
'We cannot cut any further, there is literally nothing left to cut'
As chair of governors, I've seen our city primary suffer from structural underfunding for years and we have been in deficit for as long as anyone can remember. Implementing the NFF as planned would increase our budget by 10% and allow us to balance at last.
The NFF itself can be fair mechanism: the consultation on broad principles was well received. The issue is with the lack of money to be distributed in the first place. If you keep the cake the same size but increase the number of pupils sharing it, a fairer distribution system may still leave some people underfed.
We have already cut teaching assistants, so there is no support in class unless child has significant SEN. We have not been able to invest in books, iPads or general resources for years. Any teachers leaving are replaced by NQTs, as they are cheapest. Trips and extras are funded by voluntary donations, or they cannot happen.
Our biggest concern is that the NFF won't be implemented, or that gains will be capped to compensate those who lose out. The existing local formula is too heavily skewed against us. The LA underwrites our deficit each year, but if a watered down version of NFF is brought in, we won't have enough money to break even and the funding will bypass the LA, who will no longer have the funds to bridge the gap.
We cannot cut any further, there is literally nothing left to cut, and we would not be sustainable as an academy because of the structural deficit.
Tom is a chair of governors at a large primary school in the East Midlands
More schools are going to have to consider joining together
Like everyone else, we'd like more money, but we're not in the red and we're not in a position where we're thinking about redundancies. That's partly because we have some reserves, but we've also just been very careful with funds.
It's like running a household budget – you have to look for savings where you can. You need to put food on the table, run the car, pay the mortgage, but when times are tight you may not go out to eat so much.
We've been more creative with staff CPD. Rather than just signing a teacher up on an expensive course, we've looked at the benefit for the whole department, or whether we could find that expertise in-house or more cheaply. Years ago heads of departments could spend money as they liked, but staff now understand that they need to be creative to make money go further. The PTA has been great at fundraising to make sure we can still offer some of the extras, like special events for students.
It looks like our funding would stay roughly the same under the NFF. But standing still isn't enough to deal with increased pension contributions and staff salaries. That's why we're looking at joining at multi-academy trust. It's economies of scale: maybe if one school can't fund MFL at A-level and the other can't fund PE, they can pool together to share resources. It looks like in the future more schools are going to have to consider joining together more and more.
Anita is vice chair of governors at a secondary stand alone academy in South London
We still hold leaders to account, but you have to recognise the realities of their situation
We have a surplus this year, but that's only because we didn't replace two senior staff members who left last year. Like many schools, we appoint NQTs to fill vacancies because they're cheaper.
Overall we're running with 1.2 fewer full-time equivalent teachers than last year, and we've cut 100 hours a week of support staff time. That means we just can't provide the support we used to offer for students with additional needs or challenging behaviour any more. We've also stopped our reading recovery programme for the same reason.
The head, deputy head and even the business manager have had no choice but to take on roles supporting students who show challenging behaviour, but obviously that takes them away from their leadership roles and has knock-on effects. As governors, we still hold leaders to account, but you have to recognise the practical realities of their situation.
And we know that we'll be held to account on things that are beyond our control. If Ofsted asks why a group of students is not being properly supported, it isn't going to wash to just say "Well, we have 100 hours less support each week".
Everybody knows it's only going to get worse. We dodged a bullet this year, but even if there's a potential increase from the NFF, we're on a plane descending very fast towards the ground, and all that does is slow the descent very slightly. It's a misdirection on the government's part to detract from the real problem, that there's just not enough money in the system in the first place. On top of everything else, our business rates have doubled this year.
When I see our local MP, who's also a schools minister, stand up in parliament and say with a straight face that there is more money in the system than ever, it's very hard to swallow. They keep telling us that schools should make efficiencies, which is so condescending. As if schools haven't thought of that.
What else can we cut? We've cut everything. The only options for where we go next are to shorten the school day, shorten the school week, increase class sizes further still or pay staff less.
Andrew is vice-chair of governors at an infant school in the South East.
* Names have been changed to protect identities.