DfE schools survey exposes depths of cost-of-living crisis

Two-thirds of schools hike meal prices, while three in 10 say energy support scheme made no difference

Two-thirds of schools hike meal prices, while three in 10 say energy support scheme made no difference

21 Jul 2023, 14:11

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Government surveys of school leaders and teachers show cuts being made to budgets this year

Nearly two-thirds of schools have increased the cost of pupil meals this year, while the large majority have had to make cuts including reducing support staff.

The findings, from regular government surveys of school leaders and teachers, also show over a quarter of schools say support with energy bills made no real difference to their financial position.

It comes after education secretary Gillian Keegan admitted last week that extra funding for schools announced at last year’s spending review “didn’t go far enough” to meet “additional pressures”.

Two new surveys, taken in January and March this year, also highlight a gap in schools complying with new uniform guidance, as well as the extent of non-specialists in secondary lessons.

Responses were taken from more than 1,000 school leaders and more than 2,000 teachers across both phases in both months.

Below are the key findings.

1. Food costs rise hits schools and parents

The latest school and college panel omnibus surveys show the impact of the cost-of-living crisis, including on school meals.

In March, more than three-quarters of schools (77 per cent) said the amount they were paying per meal had increased since the last academic year.

This marked a huge 14 percentage point increase from 63 per cent of schools in January.

Schools were also passing on costs to parents and carers, with nearly two-thirds (62 per cent) saying they had done so in March, compared to 53 per cent in January.

And costs had a trickle down effect on the quality of meals – with more than four-in-ten schools reporting a drop in the quality of food and portion sizes in March.

In the same month, three-in-ten school leaders said the Energy Bill Relief Scheme had not made “any real difference” to their financial position.

Just two-fifths – 21 per cent – said the discount had improved their position. The most common impact was that schools did not have to turn the heating off or down as much as they would otherwise have done (15 per cent).

2. Two-fifths had or would cut support staff

Back in January, schools were asked about broader measures to mitigate soaring costs.

The vasty majority (88 per cent) had or planned to “take action”, with the most commonly reported action being turning the heating down or off (60 per cent).

The second most common method was cutting back on the use of course materials or using cheaper alternatives (58 per cent).

But more than two-fifths (44 per cent) said they would or had cut non-teaching staff numbers, while 19 per cent said the same for teaching staff.

More than two-thirds – 34 per cent – of schools, said they would or planned to pass on more costs to parents, such as for school trips.

3. Many schools not compliant with uniform guidance

Statutory guidance came into force last September to ensure school uniform costs were “reasonable” and secured “the best value for money”.

But a poll by The Children’s Society in May appeared to suggest the government rules have had little impact.

The government’s March survey also shows some schools are lagging behind the law. More than one-in-10 school leaders said they were not aware of the guidance.

Of the 87 per cent who were aware of it – only 37 per cent knew a lot about it, 42 per cent knew a little and 7 per cent only knew the name of the guidance.

Meanwhile, less than two-thirds (62 per cent) said their school was fully compliant with the rules.

Under the guidance, schools are told to ensure arrangements are in place so second-hand uniforms are available, such as through swap shops.

A third of surveyed leaders who were aware of the guidance said they had introduced a second-hand uniform scheme since it was published.

But it was not clear how many schools already had a similar policy in place.

4. Non-specialists see workloads increase

Amid much documented and ongoing teacher shortages, nearly two-thirds of teachers (61 per cent) surveyed in January said they had taught outside their subject specialism in the last year.

Nearly two-fifths – 37 per cent – of those teachers had done so every or most weeks.

Most (60 per cent) had also taught a subject that was not closely related to their specialism.

History and design and technology teachers were more likely than average to be non-specialist teachers in other departments – 78 per cent and 81 per cent respectively.

Despite the frequency of non-specialist teachers, 54 per cent of those responding to the survey said they had not received any training or support to help them teach outside of their specialism.

And, in general, most teachers who reported taking classes they weren’t specialists in had negative attitudes towards the role.

The majority (78 per cent) said it increased their workload, was stressful (68 per cent) and they felt unprepared (65 per cent).

5. Schools lag behind climate change strategy

The Department for Education (DfE) set out its climate strategy last April in which it pledged to start rolling out carbon literacy training for at least one person in each school by 2023.

Among the policy’s aims was that trained staff would understand how to develop a climate action plan to share with others in their school.

But in the March survey, one-in-ten schools said they had a formal plan for sustainability or climate change in place.

A further 32 per cent were in the process of developing a plan.

Three-fifths (61 per cent) of schools without a plan said a lack of time was a barrier.

Other common reasons were being unsure how to develop a plan (37 per cent) and not seeing a requirement to do so (26 per cent).

In its strategy, the DfE also set out its aim to have all schools reporting their carbon emissions via a standardised framework by 2024.

But more than half of schools (53 per cent) in March said they did not monitor emissions. Nearly half (47 per cent) of those schools were unsure how to monitor them.

6. SEND pressures worsened throughout the year

In March, when the government’s special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) improvement plan was published, most (86 per cent) of school leaders were aware of it.

But responses to the January survey show a decline in the support schools were able to offer pupils over recent months.

Nearly seven in 10 of schools said the were able to effectively support pupils with SEND. This marked a fall of 10 percentage points from February 2022.

The most frequently reported barrier was a lack of funding (87 per cent).

This was followed by 82 per cent of leaders who reported insufficient access to other specialist services or professionals – an increase of five percentage points from September, when schools were asked the same question.

Just over half (52 per cent) of teachers felt equipped to support pupils with SEND – down from 59 per cent in September.

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