School funding

Cost of living and teacher pay rises forcing cuts in schools

Schools struggle to get mental health and SEND support for pupils while providing meals and food parcels to hungry children

Schools struggle to get mental health and SEND support for pupils while providing meals and food parcels to hungry children

The increased cost of living and teacher pay rises are the “main drivers” forcing schools to make cuts, with a third of primaries also forced to make savings due to falling pupil numbers, new research suggests.

A report by the National Foundation for Educational Research found large increases in the proportion of school staff reporting problems accessing the mental health and special educational needs support their children need.

It also revealed schools have a “significant” number of pupils needing additional financial and welfare support, with many providing free school meals to non-eligible youngsters, prompting a call for the earnings threshold to rise.

The research, based on online surveys of 884 teachers and 398 senior leaders, sheds further light on the crisis faced by headteachers as they have less money to help the increasing numbers of children needing support.

1. Cost of living and teacher pay drive cuts

The study found that only around one in ten staff reported not making cuts to any areas of their provision this academic year due to cost pressures.

Around two-thirds of primary and secondary school leaders said cost-of-living pressures were a main driver causing them to make cuts to spending this year. About the same proportion stated teacher pay was a main driver.

The government only provided funding to cover part of the pay rise awarded last year. Schools have to find the rest.

A third of primary schools reported falling pupil numbers as a main driver.

“Despite the schools budget increasing by £4 billion in 2023-24 and being set to increase by a further billion in 2024-25, these funding increases are unlikely to cover the scale of expected cost pressures on schools,” the NFER warned.

2. Schools cut learning resources and targeted support

Sixty-seven per cent of primary staff and 38 per cent of secondary staff reported having to cut learning resources.

Other areas of reduced spending included targeted learning support (46 and 28 per cent) and support for pupils with SEND (28 and 10 per cent).

Almost two-fifths of secondary staff and one-fifth of primary staff reported cutting the number of teachers in school or their hours. Meanwhile, two-thirds and two-fifths respectfully said the number or hours of teaching assistants had been slashed.

3. ‘Concerning’ cuts to building maintenance

Cuts to building maintenance were reported by 53 per cent of primary staff and 32 per cent of secondary staff.

The NFER said this was “particularly concerning in the context of the recent reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) crisis and National Audit Office estimates that around 700,000 pupils are learning in a school that needs major rebuilding or refurbishment”.

4. Teachers can’t get mental health and SEND support

The proportion of primary teachers unable to access any of the support they required to meet pupils’ needs from mental health services almost doubled from 12 per cent 12 months ago to 23 per cent this year.

And the proportion of teachers reporting they cannot access any of the SEND support they need has doubled for primary schools from seven per cent in 2023 to 14 per cent in 2024. Among those working in secondaries, it increased from around ten per cent to 17 per cent.

5. Need for financial support still ‘significant’

Although the proportion of pupils requiring additional welfare and financial support has dropped, it remains “significant”, the NFER said.

Senior leaders reported that around a quarter of primary and secondary pupils needed extra financial support for things like travel, IT or books this year, down from around 30 per cent last year.

Twenty-four per cent of primary and 29 per cent of secondary pupils currently need additional mental health support, similar to last year (25 and 28 per cent).

6. Disadvantaged schools more likely to report problems

Schools with the highest proportion of disadvantaged pupils were more likely to report that their children needed extra support.

Forty-four per cent of primary and 37 per cent of secondary leaders in these schools reported the need for support, compared to 12 and 10 per cent in the schools with the lowest free school meals rate.

7. More pupils coming in hungry

Around four in 10 primary teachers reported that the number of pupils coming in without adequate clothing had increased this year. About a third also saw increases in the number of children regularly arriving hungry or without books or equipment.

Again, teachers in the poorest schools were “disproportionately likely” to report these increases.

More than nine in 10 schools provided uniform and clothing, while around 90 per cent subsidised extra-curricular activities and around seven in 10 subsidised breakfast or provided food parcels, food banks or vouchers.

8. Schools providing FSM to non-eligible pupils

Thirty-one per cent of primary and 51 per cent of secondary schools reported providing free meals to pupils “who would not otherwise be eligible for FSM”. These levels are “comparable to last year”.

“This highlights that a substantial proportion of pupils who need additional support do not attract any additional funding for their schools, suggesting that the current eligibility criteria for FSM are too narrow,” the NFER added.

“Indeed, the income threshold for FSM eligibility has remained at £7,400 since 2018/19, despite high levels of inflation since then.”

Most teachers who said they had spent their own money addressing pastoral or welfare needs said the scale of their spending increased this year.

The recommendations

  • Extend the current eligibility for free school meals to ensure pupils in need who do not meet the current eligibility criteria can benefit. At the absolute minimum, this should involve uprating the income threshold for eligibility to reflect inflationary pressures since 2018/19.
  • Provide targeted financial support to help schools address pupils’ wellbeing needs, alongside meeting the additional direct costs (e.g. salary and running costs) associated with current cost pressures.
  • Increase the capacity and responsiveness of children and young people’s mental health services and the wider support around families to ensure pupils can access the appropriate help and specialist services in a timely manner, rather than schools and teachers having to step in to fill those gaps. This could include revisiting current levels of welfare support for families.

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One comment

  1. Pipes

    And how do we suggest paying for all this? A tax on private school fees won’t pay for it all. It’s about time parents start taking responsibility rather than the state. We all know that a loaf of bread is 75p and cheese slices £1. Milk £1. Aldi cereal 80p. Food banks are available for those on benefits. Are we all meant to believe that food is so unaffordable? Parents, not politicians, need to feed their kids.