Ordinary Primary School, like schools all over the country, is facing a huge budget deficit because school funding is going backwards. Unlike many, it’s okay for now: a fair hand of luck and some careful past budget management means it won’t be hit by the school funding disaster until next year. But that hit, when it comes, will be massive: a £100,000 deficit. There is no slack in the system: for years, the school has received gold stars for adhering to strict financial standards, has consistently met budget targets and evidenced commitment to providing good value for money. None of this matters now. Governors and school leaders decide, with huge reluctance, to talk about where to make the cuts.
The next day, a new pupil arrives. She’s been excluded from another setting. A pupil with an enhanced level of needs comes on roll every few weeks. Every time it happens, there is an immediate £15,000 impact on the budget. The child will be well-looked after and kept safe – that’s the bare minimum the school must do. Hopefully, her social, emotional and behavioural needs will be addressed through some focused and expert support. But the person who will be held responsible for the quality of that child’s education will be the class teacher.
The class teacher already has 32 children in his class. Three of them have specific learning requirements and a number have low-level behavioural difficulties which mean their days need to be carefully tailored. Thankfully, there is a learning assistant in the class for most of the morning. This probably won’t be the case next year. Last week, the learning assistant worked two mornings as a cover supervisor, because the supply budget has already been cut.
The class teacher welcomes his new pupil. He tries to give her a great first day, but it’s clear she needs help if she’s going to cope with the social and logistical demands of that busy classroom. There is a chair-throwing incident. He goes home to his flat-share and finds it difficult to sleep. At his friend’s school, they run yoga and mindfulness classes for staff, but at Ordinary they've started shutting the school at 5pm to try and save money, so there’s no time. This year, he’ll get a 1% pay increase, like every other teacher. He knows there’s no extra money in the school budget for this, so he tries not to moan. But he also knows he deserves more. He’s met all his targets every year. He always has a desk full of gifts from grateful parents at the end of term. He thinks he may never afford a place of his own. Unless he gets out of teaching.
Next day, he talks to the headteacher about how the new pupil is going to be supported. She has undiagnosed needs and would definitely benefit from some one-to-one time with the school’s experienced welfare workers. The head agrees, but all the people best placed to help are already looking after other children with complex social and emotional needs, many of whom cannot manage in class for more than a couple of hours each day. It’s looking likely that the child’s education is going to be put on hold while some sort of plan is cobbled together from no resources and the margins of time of skilled but already overworked learning assistants. So that’s another area where cuts seem impossible.
How about resources - some money could surely be saved there? But new resources are already rare at Ordinary. Next year, broken and aging IT equipment won’t be replaced. New books to refresh the book corners are a luxury staying firmly on the wish-list. The school benefits from the time and enthusiasm of a number of parent volunteers. They run the library and hear children read. These jobs used to be done by employed staff, but the school can’t afford that anymore.
The premises budget can’t be cut, of course, though a full-time caretaker is also a thing of the past. Safeguarding is the school’s number one priority. Paving slabs must be repaired. There is a worry about the tanked water supply. There are dozens of other things that money must be spent on, that have little to do with the school’s core purpose: teachers’ pension contributions have increased, the National Living Wage is affecting more staff; gas and electric bills are going up by a quarter. And because local authority budgets are being squeezed too, there is more to pay and less value to be gained from centrally provided services, like personnel, payroll and the attendance service.
Ordinary School has a pupil premium allocation of around £100k. Governors have been praised for the robust way they monitor the spending of this money, but they know it’s now only in their imaginations that it exists as a separate pot of funding. They’re proud of the way it’s been used though, to create specialist teaching opportunities and to carve out time for teachers to run interventions which are beginning to make a difference. Children who were falling behind are having their confidence boosted. It will be intensely frustratingly to cut these interventions before they deliver the promise of their full impact.
Teacher training and development is one area that could and should be cut, say some staff and governors. After all, that’s better than increasing class sizes or sacking people. Perhaps. But let’s be clear: lack of investment in staff leads inevitably to school failure. Like every school leader, the head at Ordinary knows that her staff is the school’s most important asset. She also knows that in schools where training and development aren’t prioritised, teachers resort to the safety zones of teaching, new ideas are not tried out, professional and reflective dialogue dries up, staff morale dips and eventually, teachers leave. Cutting the development budget means standards will fall.
So, the team at Ordinary agree: there are no easy cuts. There are no cuts that won’t mean failure at the school they love; no cuts that won’t impact on their children’s everyday experiences and future chances. The current government’s plan for schools’ funding will lead to the failure of ordinary schools everywhere, because whatever budgets are cut, the real wounds will be to the quality of education.
Meanwhile, the government plans to spend £320 million on free schools and grammars.
This is the sad but true tale of ordinary schools everywhere. To give these schools a chance, please don’t vote Conservative on 8th June.