In over 20 years leading schools, I have never before been faced with such a shock to our budgets,” said Richard Sheriff, the chief executive officer of the Red Kite Learning Trust of 13 schools in North and West Yorkshire. “We are in the desperate position of having to look at cutting everything from school trips to teaching resources.”
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The sheriff is not alone. School leaders across England have spent the past few weeks poring over their balance sheets, trying to make their budgets stretch to accommodate soaring energy costs, a growing wage bill and the impact of mounting inflation on everything from paper to pencils.
The result has been widespread cuts to educational programmes and support services. Some schools even consider reducing the number of days they are open each week to save on running costs.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said Julie Swan, the headteacher of Easton Primary Academy in Norwich, which has had to axe its breakfast club and reduce the number of teaching assistants it employs. “We are a good school in a disadvantaged area and have worked hard to close the attainment gap. But these cuts will set us back years.”
The squeeze on school budgets is being felt across the country, with nearly two-thirds of headteachers surveyed by the School Cuts coalition of education unions reporting that their budgets will be less than last year.
The impact is particularly acute in primary schools, which have borne the brunt of government austerity measures since 2010. According to the latest figures from the Department for Education, primary school budgets are set to be nearly £1 billion (US$1.3 billion) lower in 2020 than in 2015.
The situation has been exacerbated by a sudden rise in energy costs, with many schools reporting 20% or more increases in their gas and electricity bills this year. At the same time, a pay settlement agreed between the government and teaching unions last year is starting to bite, with salaries rising by an average of 3.5% this year.
Schools must make difficult choices about where to cut costs to make ends meet. In some cases, that has meant reducing the number of teaching and support staff, which can negatively impact pupils’ education.
In others, it has meant cutting back on vital programmes and services, such as school trips, extracurricular activities and professional development for staff.
“These cuts will impact the quality of education our children receive,” said Sheriff. “It is unsustainable to keep asking schools to do more with less.”
The government has sought to downplay the impact of the cuts, with education secretary Damian Hinds insisting that schools still have access to the resources they need to provide a good education.
However, many school leaders dispute that claim, pointing out that their budgets are already stretched.
“The government says there is more money going into schools than ever before, but that is simply not true,” said Swan. “When you factor in inflation and the rising energy cost and wages, we are receiving less money than we did a few years ago.”
School leaders are calling on the government to urgently review its funding arrangements for schools, arguing that the current system is unfair and unsustainable.
“We are facing a perfect storm of rising costs and shrinking budgets,” said Sheriff. “Something needs to be done quickly before the situation gets any worse.”
What should the government do to address the funding shortfall in schools?
Should the government increase funding for schools? Or are there other measures that could help ease the pressure on school budgets?
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