Covid costs: Cuts to education provision 'inevitable' unless DfE acts

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Spiraling costs: The ASCL research quoted below estimates that sanitiser stations with liquid/wipes for every classroom and assembly point are costing schools around £3,000 per term (image: Adobe Stock)

Cut-backs to educational provision for pupils will become “inevitable” unless the Department for Education (DfE) provides more financial support to schools during the Covid crisis.

The warning comes as a report from the National Foundation for Educational Research (Julius et al, 2020) found that around one in four schools are at risk of not being able to cover the increased costs of Covid-19 this year, and that schools in deprived areas are twice as likely to find themselves in this position.

And almost 30,000 school leaders have now signed an e-petition calling for the costs of Covid safety measures and of lost income to schools to be covered by the government.

Last month, the DfE pledged to cover costs for schools facing high levels of staff absence during November and December. More details are yet to be published about the so-called Covid workforce fund, but strict criteria look set to exclude the majority of schools from applying.

Analysis by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) in September found that secondary schools are facing bills of up to £39,000 a term, spending as much as £75 per-pupil on safety measures.

A significant contributor, ASCL said, is enhanced cleaning, which at an additional 22.5 hours a week comes to £13,000 a year. Other costs included digital textbooks and additional teaching assistant time.

Analysis by the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), meanwhile – involving mainly primary schools – found that the average spend so far this term is more than £8,000.

The NFER report focuses on mainstream primary and secondary schools. It finds that many schools were already in deficit or close to it when the pandemic struck.

It states: “Schools have lost a significant amount of income and incurred substantial additional expenditures during the 2020/21 academic year; 1,500 schools are at particular risk of great financial hardship due to Covid-19. These schools are disproportionately likely to be deprived.”

It adds: “One-quarter of schools may not be able to meet the increased costs of Covid-19. This is because their notional per-pupil funding increases of 2.5 per cent for 2020/21 will need to cover costs of teacher salaries and other inflationary pressures, which we estimate will average 2.7 per cent.”

The NFER paper also concludes that the DfE’s new Covid workforce fund will not make much difference. It adds: “The scheme’s current eligibility criteria and coverage suggest that it will not go far towards easing the current resource pressures on schools.”

The report also points out that the Covid-19 exceptional costs scheme covering March to July saw nearly two-thirds of mainstream state-funded schools apply. Primary schools claimed £7,800 on average, while secondaries claimed £23,900. However, not all the schools that applied met the criteria.

Finally, the report confirms that the government’s National Tutoring Programme will only be able to offer places for fewer the one in five disadvantaged pupils. It adds that “pupils in the most deprived schools, who are in the greatest need of catch-up support, are at the greatest risk of losing out.”

SecEd has previously reported that the NTP has only 250,000 places available and has only allocated £106m of the £350m DfE grant to fund the catch-up tutoring.

The report adds its voice to existing calls foremergency support” to help schools meet the costs of Covid-19, particularly for those in deprived areas. This adds to existing pleas from both the NAHT and ASCL.

It comes as a petition on the government’s e-petitions website, created by Jim Nicholson, headteacher of Mellor Primary School in Stockport, and calling for the reimbursement of all Covid-related costs to schools, including lost income from rental and lettings, passed 29,000 signatures.

At 10,000 signatures, the government was obliged to respond to the petition, although its response on December 7 pointed solely to its Covid workforce fund and will be unlikely to satisfy many at the chalkface. If the petition reaches 100,000 signatures it could be debated by MPs in Parliament.

The petition has been supported by the NAHT. General secretary Paul Whiteman said: “The mandatory unanticipated costs schools are now facing due to Covid-19, that have so far gone unreimbursed by the government, mean that money could be taken away from children’s education and wellbeing and some schools could be pushed over the edge financially.

“Our research shows that in just the first few weeks of term schools spent on average more than £8,000 pounds each on the safety measures demanded by the government. With restrictions set to continue until March next year, costs are spiralling.

“Last week the government offered a glimmer of hope for some schools, promising some financial assistance, but only for staffing costs and only if they have exhausted their financial reserves. There is still no additional money to help schools pay for essentials like sanitiser, masks, soap and other cleaning products. We would like to see the government go further.”

His counterpart at ASCL, Geoff Barton, added: “The fact that deprived schools are under the greatest financial pressure as a result of the Covid pandemic is a damning indictment of the government’s failure to provide the support that is so desperately needed.

“Its announcement of a Covid workforce fund to support the cost of covering teacher absence is very limited and comes with far too many caveats.

“Schools and colleges are incurring huge costs in managing Covid safety measures as well as paying for supply cover and they need these costs to be fully reimbursed. Their budgets were already extremely tight before the pandemic and they simply cannot sustain this additional pressure.

“The inevitable outcome will be that schools and colleges will have to make further cuts which will affect provision for their pupils unless the government gets a grip of this situation.”

Elsewhere, the NFER report is also recommending targeted funding to be increased as part of a longer term programme of catch-up support to make up for the gaps in the NTP.

The report adds: “Schools should be provided with additional in-kind and/or financial resources with a minimum level of IT devices and internet connectivity to ensure that all their pupils are able to access remote/blended learning and catch-up support.”

Jenna Julius, report author and economist at the NFER said:Schools are facing substantial extra costs to keep their staff and pupils safe, and the existing funding provision is insufficient to cover these extra costs in some schools. Emergency support is needed now to help meet the costs of Covid-19, particularly for deprived schools without the financial resilience to meet the costs of the pandemic from their existing budgets.”

Meanwhile, the DfE has said that the Covid workforce fund will be “cover the costs of high levels of staff absences over a minimum threshold” for November and December. On November 27 (DfE, 2020), it said that guidance on the claims process “will be published shortly”…

Schools will be able to reclaim costs incurred over the course of the current half-term, if they meet the following conditions:

  • Financial: Schools will first need to use any existing financial reserves. They will be eligible for this additional funding once they have used these down to a level at four per cent of the annual income.
  • Absence rates: A short-term teacher absence rate at or above 20 per cent and/or a lower long-term teacher absence rate at or above 10 per cent.

The DfE states: “For all teacher absences claimed at or above these levels, schools will need to certify that they have first tried appropriate staffing mitigations as set out in schools guidance for full opening, and that claims are necessary in keeping their school open.

“Claims can include the cost of bringing in supply teachers but also other options such as paying additional hours for teachers who are part-time.”

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