I have been a teacher for 30 years, a Headteacher for 15 years and, at the age of 54, this much I know about how the budget squeeze is forcing school leaders to gamble.
First, some key data. When I began at Huntington School as head teacher in September 2007 we had 1,526 students on roll. We had 97 full time equivalent teachers. Today we have 1,527 students on roll. We have 86 full time equivalent teachers. Our current annual budget is £7,700,000 p.a.. In 2010 our budget was £7,300,000p.a.. According to the Bank of England Inflation calculator we would have a current budget of £9,194,000 p.a. instead of £7,700,000 p.a. if our budget had just kept up with inflation since 2010. So, compared to 2010, we currently have one more student, 11 fewer classroom teachers and £1,500,000 p.a. less, in real terms, in our budget.
Since 2010 we have managed our budget with some expertise. I am fortunate to work with an expert Finance Manager, a highly efficient curriculum/staffing Assistant Head, a brilliant Human Resources manager, a frugal Premises Manager and a wider staff possessed of limitless generosity of spirit.
The 85% cut in recurrent capital funding implemented in 2011 saw us left with just £29,000 p.a. for the upkeep of our rag-tag, sprawling campus; before 2011 we had £160,000 p.a.. The fabric of the building is fraying at the seams. Literally.
All that said, it is important to make this observation: as our budget has declined in real terms, we have focused relentlessly upon improving the quality of teaching and learning. Despite the funding cuts our outcomes have improved and we are a tangibly better school than we were in 2010.
The trouble is, we have nothing more to cut.
And what is hard to live with is the uncertainty around future budgets as we plan the curriculum and staffing for the next two years. As a Local Authority School we do not know if the increase in employer pension contributions will be funded by the DfE beyond March 2020 (c.£70,000 p.a. at Huntington); nor do we know whether the September 2018 increase in teachers’ pay will be funded beyond March 2020 (c.£55,000 p.a. at Huntington). We will only know whether those increases will be fully funded after the 2019 Spending Review, a date for which I have spent a long time trying to discover, without success.
And post-Brexit economic forecasts suggest things will get worse before they get better. As does the latest budget news, announced on 6 February 2019, the last bullet point on the ESFA’s online update: we have the certainty that the September 2019 2% pay increase will not be funded by the DfE (c.£100,000 p.a. at Huntington); rather, the DfE consider that the 2% can be found within current funding “without placing further pressure on school budgets”.
All this means we are attempting to finalise the curriculum plan whilst unsure whether we will receive continued additional funding to cover the increases in Pensions and Pay. If that £125,000 p.a. is not funded by government from March 2020, by 2024 our budget will be £500,000 worse off.
So, can we afford a Year 7 nurture group for this September? How large are our Year 9 Music classes going to be? How many options groups should we have in Year 10? How many A level classes can we afford? The answers to those questions – answers which directly affect students and staff – will be different depending upon whether that increase in costs of £125,000 p.a. is funded by government or not. But we will not know that budget information before we finalise next year’s curriculum and staffing plans.
We could have more groups than we can afford on our 2019-2020 curriculum plan, only to find that the additional costs are not met, or we could reduce the number of groups, only to find that the additional costs are met. On the other hand, we might reduce the number of groups and find the additional costs are not met, or we could have more groups than we can seemingly afford and find that the additional costs are met.
In essence, do we put our students and staff first and overspend hoping the money works out, or do we tighten our belts to ensure we remain in the budgetary black? Who knows? Amidst a morass of uncertainty and inexorably rising class sizes, school leaders like me are being forced to gamble with students’ futures and teachers’ well-being.