‘A race to the bottom’: Pay rises push struggling schools to the brink

More than two in five leaders say they will need to consider job cuts without further government cash

More than two in five leaders say they will need to consider job cuts without further government cash

29 Jul 2022, 15:00

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Most schools have taken at least one measure to reduce spending in the last year, a new survey shows
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More than two in five school leaders will be forced to consider staff cuts to fund pay rises next year, with classroom upgrades and resources for pupils also under threat.

The figures from a Teacher Tapp poll conducted for Schools Week come after the government last week announced a 5 per cent pay rise for most teachers, an increase on the 3 per cent originally put forward. Starting salaries will also increase by 8.9 per cent.

Days later, local authorities also offered school support staff and other council workers a £1,925 pay rise, equating to a 10.5 per cent increase for the lowest-paid and 4.04 per cent for higher earners.

In the survey of 1,410 school leaders across primary and secondary state-funded schools in England:

  • 58 per cent said they would not be able to cover the costs of pay rises within their current 2022-23 budget, while 28 per cent said they were “not sure”
  • Just 13 per cent said they would be able to fund the increases
  • With staff pay accounting for the largest proportion of schools budgets, 42 per cent said they would need to consider staff cuts to cover the cost, while another 39 per cent said they were not sure
  • Only 18 per cent of leaders said they would not need to consider shrinking their workforce

Support staff at risk as pay rises outstrip funding

While both awards are below current inflation and have been met with dismay by unions, no extra government cash has been offered to cover the estimated £2.3 billion cost.

It means schools, which from funding increases announced in 2019 and 2021 only have scope for an extra £2.1 billion of spending this year according to a DfE analysis, will have to find other ways to stump up the money.

Findings from the survey show support staff roles are most likely to be at risk as a result.

Of the leaders considering redundancies, 53 per cent said teaching assistant roles would be under consideration.

This was followed by administrators (23 per cent), teachers (20 per cent) and senior leadership team roles and lunchtime staff (both 15 per cent).

The government says the rises will be funded by the “generous school funding settlement” allocated at last year’s spending review. But for headteachers on the ground, the reality is very different.

School leaders scramble to balance books

With his multi-academy trust’s budget plan for the upcoming academic year already filed and the summer holidays kicking off, Dartmoor MAT CEO Dan Morrow hoped to spend the week ticking off other tasks for September.

Dartmoor CEO Dan Morrow
Dan Morrow

But the late-in-the-day pay rise announcements have thrown an almighty spanner in the works — tagging a £800,000 cost onto the 18-school chain’s 2022-23 spreadsheets.

Rather than planning an attendance strategy or writing grants submissions, Morrow is now drafting eight example reconfigurations of his original budget to present to board members.

Central to each proposal is a plan to freeze recruitment and cut 5 per cent of staff — equivalent to 45 full-time roles — at the Devon trust through natural wastage.

“It’s a race to the bottom,” said Morrow. “Paying the colleagues we currently have a decent and fair wage will come at the cost of overall staff provision.”

Dartmoor has reserves to rely on, but Morrow says the trust will be “skirting very close to the level at which it’s meant to be” without making savings elsewhere.

Cuts will impact families already under strain

With staff pay typically representing over 70 per cent of school spending, it is the area where the most savings can be found. But classroom teacher roles are hard to lose, and teaching assistants and support staff are also “crucial”, said Morrow.

These staff include counselors and family liaison officers who signpost struggling households to financial support, at a time when demand for the trust’s own food bank has increased by 500 per cent over 18 months.

Ironically, some of its users are among the trust’s own staff.

“I absolutely know and believe they need a significant pay rise, there’s no sense of doubt about it,” said Morrow.

“But without additional funding it’s going to create the very opposite of levelling up – an even more unlevel playing field for the communities we serve.”

Job cuts put SEND provision at risk

Simon Smith, headteacher at East Whitby Primary Academy, also faces a huge dilemma.

One of few schools offering special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) provision in the area, around 8 per cent of his pupils have education and health care plans (EHCPs).

The number of support staff is also nearly double that of teachers, at 17 versus nine respectively. It means that of the £60,000 cost of pay rises next year, £40,000 will be for support staff.

So far, Smith has scrapped plans to spend £50,000 on a new early years outdoor space and to replace the school’s 30-year-old classroom tables.

“I think we can just about manage this year, but after that, I think my budget will look short,” he said. “If [the rises are] not funded it will lead to redundancies.” 

Provision for children with SEND would be at risk if support staff numbers are cut
Provision for children with SEND would be at risk if support staff numbers are cut

Such cuts would ultimately come from the pool of support staff, said Smith, despite the intensive needs of some pupils.

“Every SEND child brings a cost that is more than you’re given in funding or support. We’re not a school that turns people away, but we’re going to be at a point where we have to.”

Leaders may have to sacrifice clubs and activites

Like Smith’s decision to put school improvements on ice, other leaders are finding ways to make savings that don’t involve hemorrhaging staff.

“We’re not going to do anything at the start of next term – we couldn’t even if we wanted to because those budgets are set and those people are employed,” said Paul Heery, CEO at White Hills Park Trust in Nottinghamshire.

While his chain’s “reasonable” reserves will initially prevent job cuts, in the longer term it may need to reconsider additional recruits, as well as IT investments and maintenance costs.

The picture is similar at The Education Alliance MAT in Yorkshire, where the estimated cost of teacher and support staff pay rises across seven schools is £500,000.

School trips could be at risk as schools look to make extra savings to fund pay rises
School trips could be at risk as schools look to make extra savings to fund pay rises

CEO Jonny Uttley said savings could be made by replenishing IT equipment less frequently and cutting departmental spending, meaning less textbooks and other materials would be on offer.

Morrow, too, is looking at making smaller savings from other areas of his budget – including through cancelling school trips that “broaden knowledge and experiences” because of the number of disadvantaged children that require school funding to go on them.

Ultimately, most schools will find ways to balance the books because “you can only spend what you have coming in,” according to Matthew Clements-Wheeler, former chair of the Institute of School Business Leadership (ISBL).

“But it’s at what cost, and if you pare back provision in order to do that, eventually you start to compromise the core educational purpose of the organisation.”

School budgets already under pressure

Such corner-cutting comes against a backdrop of schools already facing pressure to curb non-staffing costs.

academy trust outsource
Stephen Morales

Despite a recent DfE boast that the sector had made £1 billion of spending cuts being described as “shameful” in the context of years worth of budget cuts, it has since urged schools to find another £1 billion in savings to cover rising energy and other costs.

Stephen Morales, CEO of the ISBL, noted that schools were already in “crisis management mode”.

“[Schools should always] build in headroom to give their budget some resilience, and when there’s times of uncertainty you have to build in quite a big buffer, which means less is going to the frontline.”

But even though most would have a larger contingency fund in place this year, leaders were in the dark as to just how much they would need to cover pay rises while plotting their budgets in spring.

“That’s why everyone was calling for a decision on teacher pay quite some time ago, and we got it a day before schools broke up,” added Morales.

‘A slap in the face’ for over-stretched leadership

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We have accepted the recommendations of the independent School Teachers’ Review Body for the coming academic year and are awarding teachers the highest pay awards in a generation.

“Funding for these pay awards will come from the generous school funding settlement at last year’s spending review. The settlement is heavily front-loaded with £4 billion extra going into schools this year and a total increase of £7 billion over the three years up to 2024-25.”

But for Morrow, the timing of the announcement is indicative of a widening government indifference to the sector.

“Most schools have broken up. To put this level of stress on leaders when for the last few years all we’ve done is work, is an absolute slap in the face to any sense of organised management,” he said.

“To normalise this form of inadequate [pay rise] offer is just preposterous. It’s almost like it’s become acceptable to treat the sector with borderline disdain.”

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