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All breakages to be paid for

28 September 2018

School funding is at a critical level — so much so that one-form entry schools are no longer financially viable. The Government must act, says Anthony David


Handling school finances are a bit like juggling glass balls, with an increasing risk of shattering something important

Handling school finances are a bit like juggling glass balls, with an increasing risk of shattering something important

TO SAY that we are looking over the precipice in terms of educational funding is no over-statement. It is not my attempt to sensationalise: it is where we are. Funding effectively halted in schools seven years ago, when ever-increasing demands were made on a shrinking budget.

While it was good news that the pay rise awarded to teachers in July was going to be fully funded by the Department for Education, what was not mentioned was the larger pay rise awarded to non-teaching staff which schools will have to support themselves.

Increasingly, I am hearing executive head teachers and CEOs of larger multi-academy trusts (MATs) state that one-form entry schools are simply not financially viable now. But here’s the rub: the average primary school has approximately 260 pupils: in other words, a one-form entry school with a nursery.

Effectively, MATs and the new generation of executive heads are turning their heads away from more than 50 per cent of schools for financial reasons. Within this mix are the majority of Anglican voluntary aided schools — the traditional school that has faithfully served communities for generations.

I straddle both camps: I lead one school that is new and large, and therefore financially viable; and I lead a traditional Anglican school. Both schools have attained the highest external judgements, and both are respected by their communities as the place to be. It is an honour to be leading them, but we have this model purely because it is, financially, the smartest way forward. Indeed, without this model the smaller school could face imminent closure.

The irony is that small schools typically have the highest attendance, strongest exam results, lowest behaviour concerns, and greatest stability. All of these things are essential for the long-term well-being and sure start of our pupils. The London Diocesan Board of Schools (LDBS) has recently reported that, of its 150-plus schools, more than 95 per cent have been judged by OFSTED to be good or better. No local authority could even begin to come close to that claim. Yet the majority of schools within the LDBS are small and at financial risk.

Are schools over-staffed? That is an obvious question, given that 90 per cent of the budget covers staffing costs: reduce staff, and have a more flexible budget. I have cut staff in my smaller school by 20 per cent, and we are now looking at how we can reduce further. Can Mr David, perhaps, be shared over more schools? Do we really need that teaching assistant? Can the teaching assistant cover any gaps in the day which would traditionally be covered by teachers? All of these are options, and all carry risks. And that is a real danger.

No school in the country wants to go under; that sense of service runs deep, particularly within church schools. But they face increasing risk. A head once said to me that school leadership was like juggling balls: it doesn’t matter if you drop a couple of balls, as long as it’s not the glass ones. As we stretch our finances, we risk juggling more and more glass balls, with a higher and higher risk of shattering something important. The real risk, to misquote Donald Rumsfeld, are the unknown unknowns.

Over the past few years, the Government has managed a double act of high-profile campaigns, considering fair funding across the country, while at the same time stealthily increasing various “taxes”, such as pension contributions and National Insurance, and introducing new levies such as the Apprenticeship Levy. The Fair Funding formula was exposed as being anything close to “fair”, but has continued, despite nationwide protest.

It is the stealth taxes, however, that have hit hard. Each tax nibbles a few thousand here, a few thousand there, and have been commissioned in the mid-financial year. When you have lean budgets, it is hard to find an additional (and unexpected) few thousand mid-year, and this has led, inevitably, to some schools’ falling into deficit — not because they have been financially negligent, but because the taxman has demanded unexpected taxes.

It is the unexpected nature of these challenges that is the important point. Heads are used to planning for change, but we do not expect our Government to make financial demands without any warning. When taxes change, seemingly on a whim, the cost is trust.

School finances are at that point when tithes, summer fairs, and gifts are not going to come close to filling the gap that is opening up. Many schools are going under today, and, within two years, thousands of schools will be in deficit. The Government seems to be reluctant to commit any additional funds, but the longer it holds off, the greater the risk that education faces. That precipice is looking a bit closer since starting this article.

Anthony David is an educational commentator, writer, and school leader

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