Two-thirds of heads warn schools face cuts despite ‘record’ funding

Two-thirds of primary school leaders say sharp cutbacks could be needed to balance their books in two years’ time, according to a union survey.

The NAHT union warned almost a third of those polled had already made cuts in the past year, with some heads revealing they had cut teaching assistant and site manager roles and were struggling to afford psychologists and school trips.

70 per cent of NAHT members predicted their schools’ cost would outstrip income in 2023-24 unless they make “significant cuts or other corrective actions.”

It marks a sharp rise on the 48 per cent who warned of more immediate deficits in 2021-22 and 2022-23 unless they take drastic action.

Just 16 per cent of school leaders expect to balance the books or have money left over in 2023-24, down from 50 per cent in 2021-22.

The figures come in spite of the “record funding packages” trumpeted by education secretary Gavin Williamson last week. Ministers have repeatedly highlighted a £7.1 billion package of extra cash being ploughed into schools 2019 and 2023.

They are likely to heap further pressure on Williamson to secure extra funding for education at the next government spending review, which he has told broadcasters he is pushing for.

Last week saw a rare rallying cry for extra funding by the leaders of several large multi-academy trusts, who demanded targeted cash for disadvantaged pupils hit hard by the pandemic.

Separate analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies also suggested spending in real terms per pupil will still be lower in 2023 than more than a decade ago under the previous Labour government.

The NAHT said rising expectations of budget problems in future years could reflect predicted spending on projects or costs which had been delayed during the pandemic.

The most commonly highlighted existing budget pressures were providing more SEND and mental health support, Covid safety measures and lost income such as lettings, and increased salary costs.

The NAHT shared examples of members’ experiences.

Lesley Roberts, head of a Berkshire primary school, said she could not afford a caretaker or SENDco. “Special needs is beyond crisis in schools, it’s sucking the money from budgets,” she said.

Helen Spearing, head of a Staffordshire primary, said school trips had been restricted and teaching assistant salaries reduced to term-time only. Another leader said their school had been without access to an educational psychologist for a year.

“The government is forcing schools to cut back on staff, support for pupils, and activities that enrich the school day,” said Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT.

The average leader reported additional Covid costs such as cleaning of more than £38,000 and almost £22,000 in lost income such as lettings.

Academy school leaders were slightly more likely to report their finances had deteriorated further between 2020 and 2021 than their peers in local authority schools.

But Schools Week also reported earlier this year on the mixed impact of Covid on school finances, with some large trusts tapping wealthy donors and others boosting reserves by saving money on running during lockdowns.

A DfE spokesperson said it had overseen “the biggest uplift to school funding in a decade”, with funding rising 3.2 per cent next year overall. High-needs funding will rise 9.6 per cent in 2022-23 and the government “remains focused” on completing the SEND review, he added.

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