A financial cliff-edge: The costs of Covid

Written by: Anthony David | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The £650m catch-up premium is just a footnote when compared to the huge strain being put on school budgets by the Covid-19 crisis. Primary school leader Anthony David is deeply concerned

This is a personal article. If it rings true to you, which I suspect it will, then I will know that I am not alone in my concerns.

Small schools are in jeopardy. In fact, I would go as far as to say that some small schools could end up facing a financial cliff-edge because of the Covid-19 crisis.

School funding is not a new story. We have been challenging the government over funding for the last decade.

As school budgets were cut in real-terms, we have reduced and reduced and reduced. Schools have cut back on staff, leaders have refused pay rises, we have joined forces in MATs and federations to create economies of scale, and yet we are still looking over the precipice.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that school spending per-pupil since 2009 has fallen by eight per cent in real terms. Yet, the government will tell us that the schools budget is due to increase by £7.1 billion between 2020/21 to 2022/23.

However, analysis earlier this year by the Association of School and College Leaders concluded that most of this new funding will be taken up by inflation, rising teacher salaries and rising pupil numbers. In fact, according to ASCL, we will have only have £300m of this new funding left to spend on reversing the real-terms cuts of recent years – that’s £14,000 per school.

So as 2020 began, things were looking bad enough. Then Covid arrived. For my two, small schools (both successful, both full, both just barely holding on financially) it is a step too far.

Covid has exposed three key pressure areas: first, schools are in digital poverty; second, the reality of the “catch-up” funding is far from rosy; third, our staff teams are stretched to capacity.

Digital poverty

When the Covid lockdown hit, the government encouraged schools to create digital classrooms. This has now become a mandatory requirement to provide remote education when necessary (DfE, 2020).

Back in March, we were ahead of the game having set up our Google Classrooms but what became very clear very quickly was the lack of equipment. Like many schools, our laptops were refurbished and ageing. Equally, we discovered that many of our staff (particularly the younger members) did not have computers at home.

Then came the financial reality of many of our children’s lives. While many families have smart devices, these are not enough for home learning. In many families, pupils were also having to share devices.

The government’s pledge to support the most vulnerable children with laptops and hardware during the Covid crisis failed to materialise into concrete action. Even now, only one of my schools has been offered anything at all – and that was the grand total of three Chromebooks despite having higher than national average Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) and just below national average Pupil Premium.

I wonder how vulnerable pupils need to be to qualify for effective support? In 2020, it is embarrassing that we are in the position where we cannot operate our digital learning platform in school because we lack the physical resources.

What catch-up funding?

The government made a big fanfare of its £1bn catch-up fund. The one-year, £350m National Tutoring Programme (NTP) is offering support to primary and secondary school pupils “who have missed out on learning during school closures”. In addition, schools are to receive £650m in 2020/21 to support catch up activities.

Schools’ allocations will be calculated on a per-pupil basis, providing each mainstream school with a total of £80 for each pupil from Reception through to year 11.

However, Headteacher Update’s sister secondary education magazine SecEd has already reported that much of this funding will be wiped out by the costs of Covid safety measures, which for some secondary schools have hit £39,000 a term.

And data last week from the National Association of Head Teachers confirmed a similar picture for primaries (NAHT, 2020). Its survey of 2,000 school leaders, the majority of whom will have been from the primary sector, finds that in just the first few weeks since the beginning of term, schools in England have already spent on average £8,017 implementing safety measures required by government guidance.

On top of this, schools have already lost an average £9,755 in income this term as Covid restrictions means there has been a drop in demand for school facilities.

And this comes after NAHT research in June/July, which showed that during the spring and summer terms earlier this year, schools had already spent an average of £9,990 and, on average, faced lost income of £15,915.

In the face of this expenditure, we will be getting £80 per-pupil…

When you compare this to the funding we receive via the Sports Premium, it seems perverse. When it comes down to it, the catch-up funding will be a footnote in many schools’ budgets.

What is more, many schools have long ago run out of “rainy day” contingency. I remember when I used to advise colleagues that we should always look to create a contingency of up to five per cent in our budgets because there is always the risk that an undiagnosed pupil moves into your school and that this one pupil absorbs your contingency immediately as the school spends time collecting evidence to support a plan.

Contingency funds were already under pressure, but Covid has eliminated all hopes of this type of planning.

Finally, it seems bizarre that in the summer term the Department for Education (DfE) was offering grants to eligible schools to cover “exceptional costs” associated with the Covid crisis, including cleaning bills and such like. These grants amounted to £25,000 for small schools and up to £75,000 for larger schools.

But of course, this funding did not materialise for more than three-quarters of the schools in the NAHT survey. And of those that did receive money, half said that it covered less than half of their additional spring and summer term Covid expenditure.

And now that all pupils have returned where is this emergency fund? Nowhere to be seen.

Staff capacity

Schools are stretched and with rising infection rates, more and more staff are being forced to self-isolate. The pressure is huge and, once again, school budgets are taking a hammering, this time in the form of supply cover costs.

I spoke to one primary headteacher recently who estimated that she had spent, that week alone, £3,000 on supply costs just covering classes to keep them open. Another headteacher informed me that he had used 32 days of supply cover in September alone.

All heads that I speak to are looking to be creative and have exhausted available staff to cover classes (in all these cases the headteachers were teaching).

A gloomy assessment is that we are just at the start of this, with things projected to get worse and case numbers rising every day. My head of school informed me this very morning as I write that six per cent of test cases in our local authority area were coming back positive.

A final point to add is about staff and their wellbeing. Everything we are doing to keep operations as “normal” as possible is having to be rethought in the context of a Covid world. I have seen extraordinary creativity but also, I am seeing the type of fatigue that is normally associated with the end of the school year.

My teams are great – real troopers and amazing professionals – but I wonder how long they can keep it going? It is only October. A school leader spoke to me last night, sharing the same concerns. She likened her team to a house of cards – she was worried that the deck was about to fall.


So, to come back to my opening discussion – there are extraordinary demands being placed on schools at the moment and teachers and school leaders are certainly stepping up to the plate. But from a financial point of view we are walking on a cliff-edge. And without further support from the government, we may see an unexpected number of schools go into deficit this year, especially smaller schools. The cost of Covid-19 to the education of the next generation could be much deeper and longer term than we dare to think.

  • Anthony David is executive headteacher of two primary schools in north London.

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