Schools take £900m Covid hit, but few get cash help

Paul Whiteman

New figures show that the cost of Covid safety measures for schools across England has soared to almost £400 million.

And in a “double whammy” on school budgets, missed income opportunities following the pandemic have now surpassed £500 million.

Schools need the government to make good these unanticipated but necessary costs in order to protect school budgets so that pupils’ education is not adversely affected

A survey from the NAHT school leaders’ union also shows that just 16 per cent of schools have recouped any money from an additional funding pot promised by ministers.

Most of those who have accessed the government’s exceptional costs fund said they were reimbursed less than half their Covid spend.

Paul Whiteman, the NAHT’s general secretary, said heads were “baffled” by the government’s refusal to fund the safety measures.

“These costs are not optional for schools, they are required by the government’s own guidance. Schools need the government to make good these unanticipated but necessary costs in order to protect school budgets so that pupils’ education is not adversely affected.”

The union’s survey of more than 2,000 leaders found schools had spent an average £8,017 on Covid-related costs this term alone.

This equates to a £170.2 million spend nationwide, and comes on top of the estimated £212 million spent to get pupils back to school in June and July.

Ninety-nine per cent of heads reported spending money on cleaning supplies, while 83 per cent have bought personal protective equipment and 78 per cent signage, cones, tapes and barriers. Seventy-four per cent have additional staff costs, such as cleaners or site staff.

There has also been a 17 percentage point rise in the number of schools spending more on teaching assistants as other staff members have been forced to self-isolate, many as a result of a lack of testing kits.

Whiteman warned that “every pound spent on new safety measures, is a pound that can no longer be spent on pupils’ education”.

The NAHT also found schools were losing an average £9,755 in income this term as a result of the pandemic. This equates to more than £200 million when extrapolated nationwide, and comes on top of an estimated £330 million lost last year.

The government had an exceptional costs fund last term to allow schools to recoup costs, but it did not cover cleaning associated with pupils returning following partial school closures. Claims could only be made if a school had a suspected or confirmed Covid case.

Ministers have so far held firm in refusing to extend the fund to this term.

But NAHT’s data shows that 52 per cent of those who received exceptional costs funding said it reimbursed less than half of their additional spend.

The union will now vote at its conference today on a motion that could put industrial action on the table.

The motion warns that the pandemic has “burdened schools with significant additional costs”, and that if upcoming teacher pay rises are not fully funded, the union will use “all means at its disposal, up to and including industrial action”, to achieve its aims.

Government figures show that as of mid-September, schools had claimed £104 million against the standard expenditure categories in the exceptional costs fund, but had received payments of £58 million.

It is expected the government will have to secure additional funding from the Treasury to run such a scheme again.

And some in the sector say that the large reserves held by schools could be seen as a sign that they could afford to take the hit, as other businesses have been forced to do.

For instance, figures published in 2018 for council schools alone show they are sitting on £1.8 billion of surpluses.

Of those, £580 million were deemed as “excess surplus” – anything above 5 per cent of a secondary school’s total income or 8 per cent for primaries.

The DfE has been approached for comment.

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