Yesterday felt like the final straw for many school leaders up and down the country.
Schools minister Nick Gibb said the funding settlement for schools this year and the next two years has been “very generous”, indicating schools can take the hit regarding Covid-19 costs.
Apparently the decision to compensate schools for the costs of Covid-19 will be kept “under review” – but it’s not looking promising. According to Gibb, any extra costs schools have had to bear because of coronavirus can largely be covered by their funding settlement, which is “for these kinds of extra interventions”.
But Covid-19 isn’t a kind of extra intervention. It’s devastated many schools’ incredibly tight budgets completely. Let me talk you through my own situation.
I want to do everything I can to ensure that the pupils, my staff and the community of my school in Devon are as safe as possible when they return but I am faced with really tough decisions – especially over money.
Devon schools have been poorly funded for more than a decade. We come near the bottom for per-pupil funding. And my school has been in deficit for several years.
We’ve made staff redundancies and many other sacrifices to reduce that deficit. My local authority told me this year I had to have at least £5 in the black.
For this financial year, we finally managed to produce a budget that would remove us from an end of year deficit – just.
Then we entered lockdown.
The school immediately lost the income that it generates through letting the hall for a dance club and fitness classes, to the tune of about £2,000 so far. At the same time, the budget for cleaning staff and materials began to spiral.
The increase in hours worked by cleaners and extra cleaning materials has cost us £5,000 more so far. With the loss of income, this means at least £7,000 less than anticipated at the beginning of the financial year.
As the budget is so finely balanced, a few thousand pounds of extra spending and loss of income puts us straight back into a deficit.
It’s therefore just another astonishing turn from this government, following a summer of late and confusing decisions, to hear they think that schools can cope with this extra cost.
How can this be right?
When budgets were planned, we had no idea how much would need to be spent making the school safe.
Certainly in the case of my school, we can’t afford it. I am now forced to look at where I can make “savings”. Trips and visits are under review, which are so important for primary school pupils in terms of cultural capital. About 35 per cent of our pupils are from socio-economically disadvantaged families.
Meanwhile, I have a friend running a school whose school bill for Covid-19 measures is now £55,000
That’s not to mention all the additional interventions we want to put in place to close the learning gap that has widened during lockdown. Perhaps the new phonetically decodable reading books we were going to purchase will have to wait.
That’s a deep shame, as the children returning to us need help to get back on track with their learning.
Meanwhile, I have a friend running a school in an area hit by a local lockdown whose school bill for Covid-19 measures is now £55,000. They lead a bigger school than me – yet the thought of having to find tens of thousands of pounds if there is a local outbreak leaves me in despair.
I hope I am regarded as a good school leader. When a member of staff comes to me with a well-thought through concern I ask, “What can I do to help? What can I provide for you?”
I do not say: “Get on with it.”
This seems to be precisely what Nick Gibb has done. He has delivered a slap in the face to schools when he should be asking us how he can help.
His attitude is eroding the goodwill of teachers and school leaders who just want the tools to do the best job they can.
Nick Gibb – I’m asking you to show some good leadership yourself, and fight for schools to get that extra Covid costs funding.