'We can’t afford a caretaker or a SENCO' – survey lays bare funding challenges

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

“We can’t afford a caretaker or a SENCO” – primary school headteachers have laid bare the financial difficulties they are facing as one in four predict a deficit budget this year based on current funding levels.

A survey of more than 1,500 school leaders from across the country also finds that 35 per cent are expecting to make cuts this academic year in a bid to balance their budget.

Furthermore, 31 per cent said they had already been forced to make cuts to balance their budget for 2020/21. Examples given include:

  • Reducing the hours or numbers of teaching assistants.
  • Reducing or stopping SEND interventions for specific pupils.
  • Combining job roles.
  • Reducing /cutting non-teaching staff such as site managers.
  • Restricting school trips due to an inability to subsidise them.

One headteacher told researchers: “We have had nine members of support staff leave and have only replaced two.”

Another said: “As a headteacher in the last two years I have been a SENCO, school business manager, caretaker and headteacher as well as cover for the office and class.”

Almost all the school leaders in the survey (97 per cent) reported that funding for pupils with SEND is insufficient, while 95 per cent said that top-up funding for those with Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) was insufficient; 79 per cent said they funded the purchase of additional services because they were not available or accessible from health and social care.

Other challenges reported by the respondents include unfunded increases to employment costs, as well as the on-going costs associated with maintaining Covid safety measures.

The survey reported average additional costs for Covid safety measures, such as enhanced cleaning, of £24,571. Furthermore, additional teaching supply costs have amounted to an average of £13,733 per-school. There has also been an estimated average lost income of £21,867 (which refers to things like rental or lettings of facilities).

The survey has been released by the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) ahead of an event at Parliament today (September 8) when primary school leaders will speak with MPs about funding issues.

It comes hot on the heels of a report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) showing that despite the government’s additional £7.1bn investment in the schools’ budget up until 2022/23, school spending per-pupil will still be one to two per cent lower in real-terms than in 2009/10 (Sibieta, 2021).

The IFS says that school spending per-pupil in England fell by nine per cent in real terms between 2009/10 and 2019/20, the largest cut in more than 40 years.

Paul Whiteman, NAHT general secretary, said: “The government’s failure to invest in schools over the past decade is forcing them to cut back on staff, support for pupils, and activities that enrich the school day.

“Despite all the rhetoric on additional investment in schools, it is clear that school budgets remain under enormous pressure. A far more ambitious programme of investment is required from the government if schools are going to be able to deliver the education that the current generation of pupils need and deserve.”

Commenting on the SEND funding problems in particular, Mr Whiteman added: “The crisis in funding for pupils with SEND is clear for all to see and is putting significant pressure on school budgets. This report underlines why a comprehensive review of SEND funding, based on pupil need, is urgently needed. Changes to the way that national funding is shared between schools will not solve the problem when there is insufficient money in the system in the first place. The government needs to increase funding so that schools are able to properly meet the needs of all their pupils.”

What headteachers had to say

The NAHT’s research is backed up by evidence from four primary school headteachers.

Lesley Roberts, headteacher of a primary school in Berkshire: “Teaching assistants no longer help all pupils. They only work in the classes where we have children with EHCPs as we are short to cover their needs. This then reduces our ability to release staff for training and cover our office full time. We also can’t afford a caretaker or SENCO. As a headteacher in the last two years I have been a SENCO, school business manager, caretaker and headteacher as well as cover for the office and class. Special needs is beyond crisis in schools, it’s sucking the money from budgets.”

Helen Spearing, headteacher of a primary school in Staffordshire: “We have to restrict the number of school trips because we can’t afford to subsidise them if parents can’t afford to contribute. We have had to make the difficult decision to go through a process to change teaching assistant salaries to term-time only. More and more children have complex needs which require additional support but we don’t have the finances to provide extra staff. We then have to balance the needs of one child against the needs of a class of children.”

Lorna Legg, headteacher of a primary school in Devon: “We have pockets of rural and coastal deprivation here and a lack of easy access to services for our families and our schools. In fact, we have had no access to an educational psychologist for the past academic year. SEND provision is an area where the budget has been consistently overspent, due to increasing need and lower funding than many counties, with schools being ‘asked’ to give more of our budget share towards filling this gap every year.”

Gavin MacGregor, headteacher of a primary school in London: “We have had to cut back on our wellbeing and mental health support by not renewing our Place2Be counselling service. We have also had nine members of support staff leave and have only replaced two.”

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