School leaders vent their anger on funding

Written by: Dorothy Lepkowska | Published:
Rallying cry: Out-going NAHT general secretary Russell Hobby speaks to members at the union’s annual conference

The recent annual conference of the National Association of Head Teachers was dominated by discussions over school funding. Dorothy Lepkowska reports

Headteachers could reduce their schools’ working week, refuse to submit their budgets or run on deficits in response to the government’s “tsunami” of education spending cuts.

At their annual conference earlier this month, members of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) voted overwhelmingly to consider “all options” in defiance of the real-terms cut in spending on education.

School leaders at the event in Telford voiced their anger that ministers have not been listening to their concerns and instead continue to claim – “like a recorded message” – that spending on education was at record levels.

But the challenges facing schools is clear. A National Audit Office (NAO) report earlier this year warned that schools are facing real-terms budget cuts of £3 billion by 2020 because government spending, while rising, is not keeping pace with rising pupil numbers or with hikes in the National Insurance and pensions contributions that schools have to make.

The union-run School Cuts campaign website, which has analysed the implications of funding pressures as revealed by the NAO and the proposed changes under a revised National Funding Formula, has said that primary schools face a real-terms £339 per-pupil cut in funding by 2020.

In response to the NAHT concerns, the government said that education funding would rise to £41 billion in the next year, and had never been higher.

As a result of the vote, the NAHT will now consider backing its members who take action such as “reducing the school week to four and a half days” or refusing to submit their budgets.

Graham Frost, head of Robert Ferguson Primary School in Carlisle, who proposed a motion at the event on shorter working weeks, said the idea of a shortened week was a last resort but that the union should be prepared for every eventuality.

He said: “No headteacher wants to reduce provision or to cut the curriculum but we have to prepare for every eventuality. A four-and-a-half day working week must be seen as a last resort. We don’t want to cut the offer to children, to parents, to families to our staff. But there has to be some way of forcing the government to retract these cuts.

“We want our national executive to have every option available to them. We are not advocating a four-and-a-half day week, we are just so despairing.”

Clem Coady, head at Stoneraise Primary School, also in Carlisle, admitted there might be “severe consequences” for school leaders who refused to submit budgets, but the government would not be able replace tens of thousands of defiant school leaders.

“There isn’t the capacity out there,” he said. “If we all stand together and fight against these cuts we can make a difference and overturn it.”

Mr Coady said that comments from the Department for Education (DfE) urging heads to save money by changing procurement on photocopiers was “nonsensical” and that schools were already making such savings wherever possible.

He continued: “They have to (overturn the cuts). It’s simply not workable, what they are expecting school leaders to implement.”

During a panel discussion on the funding situation, Sally Bate, of the F40 campaign group of the worst funded local authorities, said it was impossible for “schools to balance the books at the moment” and she voiced fears that children with special needs would bear the brunt of cost-cutting.

And during his final address to the annual conference, out-going general secretary Russell Hobby said the proposed National Funding Formula was less to blame for the funding squeeze than the amount of money available.

He said: “No formula can be truly fair if there isn’t enough to go round in the first place.”

Mr Hobby also mocked the DfE’s advice to schools to seek new deals on photocopiers to save money. “You can’t find £3 billion by renegotiating a few photocopier contracts,” he said.

“The bulk of education spending is on people. These cuts will mean cuts to staffing.

“The majority of our members tell us that they will not be able to balance their books without significant cuts. School business leaders aren’t sleeping at night.”

  • Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance education writer.

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