How schools are forced to fill the public services void

Investigation reveals widespread collapse in support services feeding into schools since the Conservatives took office

Investigation reveals widespread collapse in support services feeding into schools since the Conservatives took office


The widespread collapse in support services feeding into schools since the Conservatives took office has been fully revealed in a Schools Week investigation – exposing government claims that restoring cash to 2010 levels will solve funding woes. Samantha Booth reports …

Gillian Keegan has promised that “parents everywhere can be confident” that schools and teachers have the resources they need after a £2 billion funding boost in the autumn statement.

The education secretary pointed to analysis from the Institute for Fiscal Studies saying the cash “would allow schools to return to at least 2010 levels in real terms – the highest spending year in history – and is what the sector said it needed”.

But a collapse in state services brought on by austerity and worsening child poverty rates as the cost-of-living crisis soars has left schools to pick up the pieces.

James Bowen, the assistant general secretary of the school leaders’ union NAHT, said the government’s funding rhetoric “completely ignores all the additional costs schools are now facing” as they fill the void out of their own dwindling budgets.

Schools Week analysed data across six key areas of health, special educational needs, child poverty, teacher recruitment, local authority support and rising costs to reveal the full scale of the crisis.

Health: Kids being ‘picked out the fire’

Health services are creaking as demand for interventions spikes. 

More than 733,756 children and young people were in contact with children and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) in 2021-22,  a 116 per cent rise on the 338,633 children who needed such support in 2017-18.

Schools Week previously revealed how suicidal children were being turned away from CAMHS, with schools instead told to “keep them safe”.

Nearly 33 per cent of referrals were assessed as not needing specialist treatment, down from the 37 per cent of five years ago. But it means that 238,000 children were turned down for treatment.

The average waiting time has dropped from 57 days in 2017 to 32 in 2020. But it rose last year, up to 40 days. It also varies hugely by area, from 13 days in Leicester to 80 days in Sunderland.

It’s not just mental health services. NHS data shows there was one school nurse for every seven schools in 2010. That’s now one for every 11 schools.

Sharon White, the chief executive of the School and Public Health Nurses Association (Saphna), said nurses now dealt with safeguarding, child protection and mental health issues – rather than prevention.

“We are picking kids out of the fire instead of stopping them falling in in the first place.”

Schools are “buying in” private nurses to fill the gap, she said.

Likewise, Schools Week analysis of local authority data estimates there are 360 fewer full-time equivalent educational psychologists (EPs) compared with 2010.

Dr Cath Lowther, the general secretary of the Association for Educational Psychologists, said shortages meant children “not receiving the early intervention support” that might prevent an escalation to more costly education, health and care plans (EHCPs).

The government has vowed to train 200 more EPs per year, but Lowther said this was not enough to “offset the numbers leaving the profession each year” because of workload and pay cuts.

SEND: Soaring need leaves children waiting  

Soaring numbers of pupils requiring additional education support has left the SEND system unable to cope.

There has been a 50 per cent rise in pupils with an EHCP since 2015 (statements of SEN before the 2014 reforms), shows the first available DfE data since the changes. This compares with a 5 per cent rise in the number of pupils during the same period.

It has resulted in two in five families waiting longer than the 20-week legal limit for their child to be issued an EHCP, little change since 2015.

In 2015, just 1,010 assessments led to no EHCP (3.9 per cent), compared with 3,903 in 2021 (5.9 per cent).

The number of families appealing decisions at the first-tier tribunal has soared to 11,000, from 3,712 in 2015-16.

They are now waiting up to a year for a decision, leaving schools to plug the gap in support.

Proposed SEND and alternative provision reforms aim to help ease pressures, but most won’t be rolled out nationwide for two to three years.

Poverty: Explosion in child foodbank use

Headteachers have told Schools Week heart-breaking stories of pupils living without electricity, wearing dirty clothes that are too small and withdrawing from school dinners and clubs.

About 600,000 more children now live in relative poverty in the United Kingdom. About 4.2 million (29 per cent) lived in a household with relative low income last year, compared with 3.6 million (27 per cent) in 2010-11.

Just 17 per cent of children were eligible for free school meals in 2010. That now sits at 22.5 per cent – 1.8 million children. Nearly 1 million food bank packages were given to children last year by the Trussell Trust charity, a 145 per cent rise from 386,000 in 2017.

Tunde King, a school social resilience co-ordinator, previously told Schools Week it felt like schools were “now part of the welfare state”.

The cost-of-living crunch isn’t just hitting the poorest. A survey by the Sutton Trust found 52 per cent of 6,200 senior leaders saw an increase in the number of non-free school meal children unable to afford lunch during the autumn term last year.

Councils: ‘We used to broker support. We now provide it’

Massive cuts in local authority funding have also resulted in their school services scaling back.

Child social worker vacancy rates hit 20 per cent last year, up from 17 per cent in 2017, with more than 5,400 agency staff needed to cover gaps.

The number of social workers quitting in 2022 (5,422) was higher than those starting (4,826) for the first time since records began in 2017.

Amy Lassman, the head of Nelson Mandela Primary School in Birmingham, said councils were expecting “more and more to be done by schools”.

She hired a family support worker for one-day-a-week, costing £10,000, but budget pressure will force her to cut the role next year.

Instead, a senior leader will become pastoral lead – but that means they will no longer teach for two days in the classroom.

“I want us to support our community and have that central role, but we used to be the broker of that support. We are now the provider.”

Meanwhile, the number of attendance officers across councils plummeted by 35 per cent since 2011, a Schools Week investigation found last year.

Kate Davies, the head of Ash Lea special school in Nottinghamshire, said schools had “often become the only consistent support for families”.

“It’s a mission creep as we are plugging NHS and social care provision gaps and now our budgets are more challenged.”

Heather Sandy, from the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said “a decade of austerity left local government funding in a parlous statement and children’s services teetering on the edge of becoming a ‘blue light’ service”.

“Tough decisions have had to be made about how funding is allocated and often the services most at risk are those addressing the root causes of problems children and their families face before they reach crisis point. This does nothing to reduce future demand, is more expensive in the long term and leads to poorer outcomes.”

The Department for Education said councils were given £59.7 billion this year in “core spending power” and high-needs funding will rise to £10.1 billion this financial year – an increase of more than 50 per cent since 2019. It will invest “more than” £50 million every year on recruiting family social workers.

Recruitment: Shortages worsen as pay stalls

While managing the knock-on effects of creaking health and social services, heads are grappling with their own worsening recruitment crisis.

Analysis by Jack Worth from the National Foundation for Educational Research found that England’s real-terms pay for primary teachers in 2020 was 10 per cent lower than in 2010.

Pay had grown the slowest compared with all other countries that provided data for the OECD study.

A rise in private sector pay and flexible working since Covid has left schools unable to compete.

Worth’s analysis predicts the government will fall 41 per cent short of its overall teacher targets next year – the lowest since records began in 2010.

Teacher vacancies are also on the rise, government data shows, up from 452 in 2010-11 to 1,564 in 2021-22.

Rising costs: School budgets take the hit

Meanwhile, as budget demands to fill creaking services grows, schools are dealing with their own cost-of-living crisis.

Some faced energy price hikes of up to 587 per cent, according to Schools Week analysis last year.

While wholesale gas and electricity prices have dropped dramatically, they were still nearly three times higher in February than before the war in Ukraine.

Alongside a rise in overheads, soaring food and labour costs mean the cost of providing a hot meal for a primary pupil is now £3.30, up from £2.30 in 2010, National Education Union analysis suggests.

But schools receive just £2.47 per meal for means-tested free school meals – a shortfall of about 83p for every meal. It means schools are having to find an extra £288 million nationally to subsidise the costs, the analysis suggests.

Heads are also having to deal with crumbling school buildings. Repairing or replacing all defects in the country’s schools was estimated to cost £11.4 billion in 2021 – almost double the £6.7 billion estimate just four years earlier.

Bowen said the answer was “really quite simple: properly funded schools being supported by well-resourced specialist services”.

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