Over a thousand parents, teachers, school support staff and head teachers attended the school cuts lobby of Parliament on Tuesday, to bring the message to MPs that 88% of our schools are seriously underfunded.
The fantasy that emanates from the Government that there are huge efficiency savings still to be made, and that it is possible to make further cuts without having an impact on children’s education, is increasingly derisible.
While understandably teachers have been in the spotlight, it is school support staff that have borne the brunt of funding cuts in recent years.
Since 2013, teaching assistant numbers in secondary schools have dropped by 8% – and by 4% in 2016 alone. There has been a 10% reduction in the number of school technicians since 2012 and last year saw a further 1.6% decrease in other support staff – which would have been higher if huge numbers hadn’t already been outsourced.
(In Scotland it is even worse, with 20% – yes one fifth – of support staff having gone since 2010.)
Over 14,000 UNISON members responded to questions on cuts and redundancies in our 2016 survey, revealing a litany of woes. Almost two thirds of schools had either made redundancies or left posts vacant and a third of schools had cut their SEN budgets, with a similar amount cutting their maintenance budget.
Office staff are under particular threat as the Department for Education specifically asks schools to consider merging their roles.
Government seem to think that such workers are easily dispensable (“back office savings”). Yet office workers perform vital front line work. In a recent UNISON survey almost 90% said they dealt directly with parental concerns; 71% ran vital ID checks; two-thirds managed attendance; and a similar number were directly involved in pupil welfare.
Helping parents fill in forms – a hugely underrated task – was a key role for 56%, and interestingly, 55% administered medicines and 53% performed first aid.
If these staff go, the impact will be felt by other support staff and teachers, with increased workloads and higher stress levels.
A year ago over half of our members reported work-related stress, anxiety or depression. But work pressures meant 40% of these people felt unable to report workload concerns and most worryingly, 56% said they had reported concerns but nothing had been done. How much worse will it be now after another year of cuts and more to come?
Our surveys regularly show huge numbers of staff working additional unpaid hours each week, reporting excessive workloads, struggling on low pay and lacking training opportunities.
One office worker put it well: “I’m frustrated that the workload has increased but pay remains the same. Jobs that redundant colleagues used to do have ended up on my desk and my job description says they can be done by me even though they were someone else’s responsibility.”
All the time the government hides behind its mantra that it’s spending more money on schools than ever before, and that schools could cope if they were just a bit more efficient.
This is nonsense. The only thing that is going to save schools, and ensure that pupils get the decent well-resourced education they need, is more money.
The ‘new money’ promised by the government just won’t be enough. Also it will be taken from other parts of the Department for Education’s budget, undermining vital initiatives that could have helped schools.
The real-terms shortfall as a result of high inflation and other unfunded costs will force senior leaders to make hard choices and we know that they have already cut easy savings to the bone.
Now is not the time for shilly-shallying. The Chancellor needs to stop snipping away at children’s education, and properly invest in their future.
Jon Richards is head of education at UNISON