Why the funding crisis is the ‘worst we’ve ever faced’

As schools reopen this week, many are anticipating their tightest budgets for years. The prospect of prolonged real-terms cuts and growing staff costs has prompted warnings from headteachers’ unions of a looming school funding crisis.

The scale of the squeeze will be a new experience for many teachers, particularly those who became accustomed to ever-expanding school budgets during the decade of continuous rises that began in 1999.

But it isn’t the first time that headteachers have had to find imaginative ways to stretch shrinking resources. In the late 1970s, when the Winter of Discontent kicked in and the three-day week was fresh in the public mind, it was clear that schools would face cuts.

“I can remember one headteachers’ meeting with the council’s director of education at which they said: ‘You should order lots of consumables because the way things are going you’re going to have a lot less money’,” says Roger Tollervey, the retired headteacher of Hillocks Primary and Nursery School in Nottinghamshire. “So I ordered loads of pens, paper, books, glues and exercise books. You’d walk around thinking, ‘This is a fire hazard’. There would be kit piled up everywhere.”

In the 80s, books were at a premium again – not least because the economy had fallen back into recession. “I remember going into a school in 1989 and getting rid of books called Science for the Seventies,” says Kim Knappett, a science teacher in South London.

Robin Bevan, now headteacher of Southend High School for Boys in Essex, was one of the children affected by the cutbacks in the 80s. “We were told that, if we finished an exercise book, we wouldn’t get another one because the school had run out,” he says. “The teachers told us it was because Kent [the local authority] had no money left.”

In the early 90s – marked by another recession, rising unemployment and Black Wednesday – even those schools that had resources found that the quality was declining.

“Once upon a time you had paper that was crisp and white and had a sheen on it, and a pencil that lasted because it was good quality,” Mr Tollervey says. “But then the stationery manu­facturers realised money was tight in schools, so the quality went down. If you did manage to get a point on your pencil, the paper was so grotty that you poked a hole in it.”

It was a tough decade in many ways, recalls Ms Knappett. “It was all about making [your own] resources and making them smaller,” she says. “A5 rather than A4 because the photo­copying costs were cheaper. You’d put them in plastic wallets. You were constantly going round and collecting them back up and salvaging what was salvageable. I learned to paste exam questions together in a way that reduced 20 pages down to 12.”

Furniture also took a hit – in some cases, literally. “If the lid fell off a desk, the top of the desk would just be nailed down,” she says. “It was make do and mend. I remember a lab where the cupboard doors were screwed shut because they were broken.”

Photocopying restrictions were even tougher in the London Borough of Brent, where Jacques Szemalikowski, now headteacher of Hampstead School in North London, worked in the 90s. “I remember being told we couldn’t use the photocopier at all,” he says. “They pulled out all the plugs.”

Schools were also cutting back on staffing, Mr Tollervey says, and newly qualified teachers struggled to find work. “I appointed an NQT who’d been working in a pork pie factory,” he says.

Staff training was hardest hit at other schools. “We had textbooks, we had resources and we had enough teachers,” Dr Bevan says. “But training budgets, money for supply teachers and everything to do with professional development disappeared. The decade was a professional development desert.”

Yet today’s funding crisis feels profoundly different from pre­vious ones, the headteachers and teachers say. For a start, it’s much less visible, in part because the effect of the rebuilds and refurbishments of the booming noughties can still be seen.

“The external appearance can be of everything being rosy,” Dr Bevan says. “During the Labour administration, after we’d paid for everything, we’d have money left for new equipment, upgrading facilities and replacing the boilers and windows. We’re still living off that legacy.”

But today’s crisis is on a bigger scale than anything seen in schools before, he says, and the absence of visible cutbacks to books and building maintenance could be masking this. “In the 90s you weren’t fearful of the school’s long-term funding position. The trimming that took place was saving tens of thousands, not hundreds of thousands as it is today.”

Dr Bevan’s school is facing a shortfall of about £200,000. “That isn’t a gap you can close,” he says. “It’s not going to be solved by having no exercise books or skipping CPD, because we only spend a relatively small amount on those things.”

Ms Knappett agrees: “Nowadays I don’t have time for making worksheets smaller. I’m not going to worry about a few extra sheets of paper, because in the great scheme of things that’s not going to buy you a teacher.”

Mr Szemalikowski says that in financial terms his school is now “in a worse situation than we’ve ever faced”, adding: “You wouldn’t see sticky-backed plastic holding the place together, but we’ve increased class sizes and are using reserves to keep going. The fact that it all looks calm on top doesn’t mean we’re not paddling like crazy underneath.”

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