The Department for Education (DfE) has been accused of having a “lack of understanding” of the financial pressures schools are facing after lambasting heads for shortening school weeks.
The DfE said last week that it was “unacceptable” for schools to reduce their weeks after Fulbourn Primary School, in Cambridgeshire, announced the move to make “significant savings in a tough financial climate”.
The department’s response suggests ministers are now taking a much tougher tone on schools that are looking to close early.
Analysis from Schools Week in March found that at least 26 schools, most of them in Birmingham, have made, or are considering, changes to their timetable in order to cut costs.
At the time, the department said any changes to the school day need to be “reasonable”, with parents “adequately consulted”.
But the department said last week: “The structure of the school day should never be the cause of inconvenience to parents and carers, and it is unacceptable for schools to shorten their school week when it is not a direct action to support and enhance their pupils’ education.”
When asked if the new approach meant the department would take action against such schools, a spokesperson said they had nothing further to add.
Andrew Morris, assistant general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said: “What is unacceptable is that DfE funding cuts are putting headteachers in a position where they feel they have no choice but to take this kind of decision.”
Fulbourn Primary will close at 1.30pm instead of 3.30pm on Wednesday afternoons from September, meaning children will be in school for 32.5 hours, rather than 34.5 hours.
In a letter to parents, the school said that Wednesday had been selected because most staff and all teachers work that day “and as a result, early closure… creates the greatest savings for the school”.
Staff would use the Wednesday afternoons for lesson planning, preparation and assessment (PPA), meaning the school reduces costs by not having to pay support staff to cover teachers’ PPA time on other days.
Pupils will only have a 45-minute reduction in teaching over the week as the school intends to “regain one of the hours by removing afternoon play”.
A study by the UCL Institute of Education last month found breaktimes have been reduced by an average of 45 minutes per week for key stage 1 pupils since the mid-1990s.
The school said on-site childcare will be provided for parents who need it, but that this will be “chargeable”.
The school told parents it has to make £60,000 additional savings next year.
The government states that staffing typically comprises 75 to 80 per cent of a mainstream school’s expenditure.
Fulbourn spends 85 per cent of its budget on staffing. Government guidance states that staffing spend of over 80 per cent of total income is “considered high”.
But Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said schools “decide to close early because they are struggling to make ends meet and only after much soul-searching… It is an unsustainable situation and the DfE’s response shows a lack of understanding about the pressures under which schools are operating.”
In England, local authority-maintained schools must be open for at least 380 sessions, which amounts to 190 days, during the school year. Academies, including free schools, set their own term dates and school day.
The government said funding for schools in Cambridgeshire has increased by 3.5 per cent per pupil, compared to 2017-18. The Institute for Fiscal Studies found total school spending per pupil has fallen by eight per cent in real terms since 2010.