The impact of the funding crisis in England’s schools is laid bare in a Guardian investigation that reveals a system falling apart at the seams, with teachers covering for canteen staff and cleaners while essential funds are raised by parent donations and “charity” non-uniform days.
Teachers and parents who responded to a Guardian callout complained there was not enough money even for basics such as textbooks, stationery and science equipment. They say children with special educational needs (SEN) are the hardest hit, as schools facing deficits struggle to fund additional support.
Schools that cannot afford cleaners are dirty and falling into disrepair. Staff have been made redundant, class sizes have gone up, subjects have been scrapped and teaching hours cut, as headteachers resort to desperate measures to make ends meet.
• In North Yorkshire, one secondary school is raising funds by holding extra non-uniform days – six a year, at the end of each half term – potentially earning an additional £3,000 for the school’s funds.
• Teachers in schools in Essex and inner London are being asked to stand in after lunchtime supervision was cut. In one Somerset school, teachers are doing cleaning duties as cleaning staff have been cut.
• Schools have set up Amazon wishlists and crowd-funding pages “so parents can buy such luxuries as pencils, glue sticks, rulers etc” according to one school in the east of England.
• Hours are being reduced at both the start and end of the day to save money. In Birmingham many primary school pupils are being sent home at lunchtime on Fridays; pupils at one Kent grammar school are being asked to come in late one morning.
• Managers in Gloucestershire are delaying turning on heating until November, even though teachers and students are wearing coats indoors to stay warm.
• Photocopying is strictly rationed, pastoral care and mental health support has been cut, and teachers are asked to teach subjects in which they are not specialists.
• Pupils with special educational needs are getting less attention because of cuts to teaching and support staff, with schools concentrating their remaining resources on those with the highest levels of disability.
In the run-up to the spending review later this year, pressure is mounting on the government to address the crisis. Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “This is simply not acceptable. How on earth does the government think we can deliver a world-class education system under such conditions?”
Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary, said it was “particularly troubling” that children with special educational needs were often the worst off.
“This government should be ashamed. It is a disgrace that in one of the richest countries in the world, schools are forced to beg for funding from parents,” Rayner said.
“The principle of free education regardless of income is a human right but it is being undermined by Tory cuts to our schools. A whole generation of students are paying the price for austerity.”
The Liberal Democrat education spokesperson, Layla Moran, said: “This investigation should shame the Tory government. With teachers covering for cleaners and parents donating money for essential services there is no way Conservative ministers can deny there is a lack of funding for our schools … to fail to act is to leave both teachers and children in the midst of what is clearly a crisis.”
Last week, in an unprecedented move, school governors from all over the country descended on Westminster to add their voices to the protest.
“As a governor of long standing, I can confirm that these cuts are very real and very damaging,” said Diana Boyd, chair of governors at Elm Grove primary school in Brighton. “It is essential the government understands their impact on children – who are, after all, the future of our country.”
Many who responded to the Guardian said their school had lost staff, with a direct impact on behaviour and learning. Some schools were reluctant to take SEN children on roll because of staff cuts.
A senior school leader in the east Midlands said: “I feel that as a country we are not aware of the crisis that is coming with SEN and disabilities.”
A teaching assistant from Nottinghamshire who was made redundant in the summer said cuts at her school were putting children in danger. “There are three children with Type 1 diabetes who now only have one properly trained person to look after them. The TA who is left is run ragged. It’s dangerous.”
In a week of intense debate about knife crime and school exclusions, parents highlighted a link between budget cuts and exclusions. “There used to be a unit where kids with problems could be worked with to try to resolve social-emotional problems,” said one Devon parent. “Now kids with problems are problem kids and get shown the door a lot sooner.”
A teacher in an inner-city school in London said the school’s computers used by pupils for IT lessons were nine years old and take 16 minutes to load. “Our lessons are 50 minutes. Over a quarter of a lesson is spent logging on,” she said.
The same teacher said she and colleagues were asked to take on duties that were once jobs in their own right. “Dinner ladies [lunchtime supervisors] have been replaced with unpaid lunchtime duties – every teacher does three a week. We also do a break duty, a morning gate duty and an evening gate duty.”
An English teacher in Rotherham said she spent £300 of her own money on books for her pupils. She spends £10 a term on pens that her students like to use and more on sanitary pads and deodorant: “Hygiene poverty definitely impacts on school attendance and cuts mean not all schools are equipped with things girls need to stay safe and clean.”
Schools in her area are in a poor state of repair, undermining pupils’ self-esteem. “Pupils see this as a reflection on themselves – a scruffy, run-down, cold, poorly resourced school as a reflection of how the government values them. I don’t think they are wrong.”
The headteacher of a primary school in Essex said she had lost a specialist phonics teacher who helped pupils achieve a 90% pass rate, while staff who provide early intervention mental heath support have also gone. At the other end of the scale, pens and glue sticks are off the school’s shopping list as too expensive.
Many contributors said parents were being asked for regular “donations” while fundraising efforts by parent-led associations are now being used to pay for essentials.
Labour MP Jess Phillips highlighted the impact of funding cuts in her constituency this week after her son’s school in Birmingham warned it may close early on Fridays to save money. “I’m guessing my Tory colleagues kids’ schools are not so similar[ly] crippled that they can only stay open 4.5 days a week,” she tweeted.
Steve Randerson, a governor at another Birmingham primary school that has been forced to cut its hours, said: “It’s a fairly depressing situation. The school’s doing everything it can to manage with the resources it gets.”
A chemistry teacher from Cheshire described four years of redundancies, school buildings no longer fit for purpose and diminishing resources: “No current GCSE textbooks, limited photocopying, sharing exercise books between classes, broken equipment not replaced.”A Gloucestershire science teacher said his annual
budget had been cut by 45% since 2010. “We are actually unable to provide students with the GCSE ‘required practicals’ as the chemicals and enzymes are too expensive. Our buildings are cold. No heating until November is the rule even though teachers and students are wearing their coats indoors,” he said.
“Overall it makes me feel hopeless about education. The students suffer and the government doesn’t seem to care.”
A special educational needs co-ordinator at an academy in the south-west with 200 special needs pupils said half of her teaching assistants had been made redundant and the school cannot afford to replace more than 20 teachers who left last year: “The school is not serving its community because there isn’t enough money. Short term this is intolerable but long term it is catastrophic.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said that school funding in England is at its highest-ever level.
“A child taking their GCSEs this year will have seen investment of around £65,000 across their education since the age of three. This is double the funding their parents’ generation would have received in real terms,” the DfE said.
“Nonetheless, we do recognise the budgeting challenges schools face. That is why the education secretary has been making a strong case for education spending across government ahead of the next spending review and has set out his determination to work with the sector to help schools ensure that every pound is spent as effectively as possible to give children a great education. He’s also set out the first ever recruitment and retention strategy to make sure that we can maintain a world class workforce.
“We are also aware of the funding pressures faced by local authorities on high needs – that’s why we recently provided the £350m in revenue and capital funding, on top of increases we had already promised.”