Sutton Trust polling released this week sheds further light on the negative impact of funding cuts on schools, revealing the lengths schools are having to go to balance their budgets. Here are the five talking points I’ve taken from the polling:
- Pupils lose out most from funding cuts
Cuts to school budgets will ultimately impact the educational experience of school pupils in England, with head teachers forced to make funding decisions that will worsen their ability to provide a stimulating and supportive environment for pupils in their care.
No head teacher goes into their role with the aim of reducing teacher numbers, so seeing that two-thirds of secondary heads have had to cut teaching staff to save money suggests that extreme measures are having to be taken to resolve the funding crisis. Fewer teachers means more work for those who remain in post, the potential for larger class sizes and greater difficulties in offering tailored interventions for pupils, all of which go against what should be the fundamental aim of schooling: to ensure every child thrives regardless of their background.
The same is true for teaching assistants. Almost three-quarters of primary leaders reported that teaching assistants have been cut in their schools. Teaching assistants are invaluable for the intensive support they provide for pupils, and their role means they’re particularly well-placed to identify issues surrounding pupil wellbeing. Reductions in their numbers will only exacerbate the difficulties faced by schools.
- Cuts to staff only adds to the crisis in teacher supply and retention
Both the NEU and NASUWT teaching unions are holding their annual conferences this week, with school funding and teacher supply and retention featuring high on their agendas. A recent NEU survey proved sobering reading for those concerned with the fall in teacher numbers, stating that two-fifths of respondents planned to leave the profession by 2024.
Workload was the main reason given by teachers in considering the future viability of their role, with the majority also stating that their work-life balance had worsened over the past year. In this climate, decisions made by school leaders to reduce the number of teaching staff will only add to the existing workload of those who remain in post; it is no surprise that teacher mental health is another key talking point for conference delegates this week.
- Alarm bells should be ringing over the use of Pupil Premium funding
Pupil Premium funding is designed to help schools resolve the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their non-disadvantaged peers, and so the findings that almost one-third of secondary heads had used this money to “plug gaps elsewhere in their budgets” is a major cause for concern.
There can surely be no justification for a scenario where money designed to support the most disadvantaged children in our schooling system is being diverted because of a shortfall in general school budgets.
- How are schools supposed to balance budget cuts with the ever-present pressure for results?
Pressure has never been greater on teachers to increase pupil performance, yet in many cases the resources available for them to do so have been reduced.
Within this context of intense accountability, the debate surrounding the scrapping and boycotting of SATS tests for Year 6 pupils perhaps epitomises the growing frustration teachers feel with the testing and results regime imposed upon them by the government.
A focus on testing creates a narrowed curriculum and forces schools to consider dodgy tactics to preserve their position in the league tables. The ongoing review into the illegal ‘off-rolling’ of pupils to boost results is another pernicious consequence of this culture of excessive accountability, and what’s particularly concerning is that it seems to disproportionately affect the less privileged.
- It’s not all doom and gloom
One positive to emerge from the Sutton Trust polling is the increased use of research by senior leaders. The Educational Endowment Foundation’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit was used by 70% of respondents to ensure they had an informed approach to designing interventions for pupils. Secondary teachers who reported using research evidence were also more positive about the effectiveness of Pupil Premium money, indicating that the growth in the use of evidence-based interventions fits well with the agenda of improving attainment of our least advantaged pupils.
Ben Jones is a qualified teacher, having taught history as part of the Teach First programme between 2016-2018. He is now completing graduate studies at the UCL Institute of Education, evaluating the strategies that schools can employ to improve the mental health and wellbeing of pupils. He was a participant on the 2012 Sutton Trust summer school in history at Durham University and is now a member of the Alumni Leadership Board.