By Jude Brady, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge
When I started my PhD research into teachers’ working conditions, I knew that budgets for England’s schools were shrinking. I had observed this through my own experiences as a classroom teacher.
By 2016, the year I left the profession, the heady days of pens and paper for all were over. I accepted that pupils shared core texts, I bought my own board pens, lined paper was a pipe-dream, student counselling hours were sparse, and many other professional services were out of budget. What I did not know was the reach of the problem, nor had I anticipated that it would escalate into a national funding crisis.
Protest against school funding cuts on April Fool’s Day in Cambridge
Photos by Steven Watson
Earlier this year, the National Audit Office reported that England’s schools have endured an 8% per-pupil funding cut in real terms compared to 2014/2015. Although the Department for Education (DfE) insists that ‘there is more money going into schools than ever before’, the unprecedented governors’ protest last month, and headteachers’ march in September 2018 suggest that many schools are facing a different reality.
This reality is reflected in my PhD data collected from those working at the chalk-face of state education. At the outset of my study, I had not intended to research school funding. In fact, the quantitative aspects of the study did not emphasise funding as a core concern. However, as I moved on to the qualitative part of the mixed-methods research, budget cuts emerged as a key theme in many of the participants’ narratives. It was a theme that was too strong to ignore.
According to my interviewees, the country’s most vulnerable children often suffer the brunt of funding cuts. One primary teacher spoke with audible anger about the effect on SEND pupils in her care. Some pupils were left to struggle in large classes after teaching assistants and other additional support had been deemed unaffordable.
Another school had to stop providing breakfast for its disadvantaged primary intake. Although food was donated by a local business, the school couldn’t afford to staff the canteen. Families felt the impact of this change alongside the closure of the local Sure Start centre – a government funded initiative which offers support and advice to parents. The headteacher feared the repercussions that these cuts would have on pupil wellbeing and school outcomes.
Secondary schools fared no better. One school in inner-London became so desperate to save money that it reduced sanitary-bin collections to once a month. This cost cutting measure was scrapped after pupils voiced concerns about overflowing bins, and a fly infestation in the girls’ toilets.
Some schools have had to cut back on their core resource – staff. One headteacher explained that he could no longer afford teachers’ salaries. When a teacher left, they would not be replaced. Instead, classes were collapsed and year groups mixed, so that more pupils could be taught by fewer teachers.
While there is some evidence to suggest that larger classes have little impact on pupils’ academic outcomes, they could increase workload for teachers. There is more marking to do, more reports to write, and more parents for teachers to keep updated. Workload is a key factor in driving teachers out of the profession.
As a primary headteacher explained, increased workload places additional pressure on teachers: “We are relying on an awful lot of extra from staff. The staff are run ragged. Everybody is so tired and so challenged – emotionally as well as physically.”
Teachers in this school were feeling the strain after they had volunteered to give up their legally protected ‘Planning, Preparation and Assessment’ (PPA) time to cover staff shortages. They did this to ensure that the school gates could remain open 5 days a week. Recent media reports suggest that more than 25 schools in England have shortened the school week to save on running costs.
For me, these narratives which detailed teachers’ lived experiences of the funding cuts reaffirmed the importance of mixed-methods and qualitative study. As one participant remarked, such work helps stakeholders to ‘see the faces behind the data’ in a way that raw numbers cannot.
Jude Brady started her career as a secondary school English teacher. She trained and worked in Yorkshire, before relocating to teach in the London boroughs of Southwark and Lewisham. Now, she is a third year PhD student at the University of Cambridge and Robinson College. Her work explores teachers’ working conditions (in relation to retention) in state and independent schools in England.