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‘London’s schools are sinking and we can no longer afford to keep children safe’

I’ve been a headteacher for 20 years and, for the first time in my career, I’ve reached the point where I’m prepared to go on strike. I do not say these words lightly, but it’s got to the stage in which hope, possibility, joy, and opportunity are being wiped out of education, and schools like mine are getting to the point where we can no longer afford to keep children safe.

Let me try to paint a picture for you. I became headteacher of Plumcroft Community Primary School in Greenwich in 2010 and, while the money has never been plentiful in education, at least back then we had sufficient funding to deliver our curriculum and enhance it with things like visits from musicians, residential school trips, and health and wellbeing projects, like using activity trackers to help tackle childhood obesity. Plumcroft used to be at the cutting edge of those things; we can’t afford to do them now because the numbers simply do not work.

Not only can we not afford those so-called “extras” like tackling obesity; we’ve reached the point where there simply isn’t enough money to be able to do even the day-to-day basics of education properly. We teachers have been paddling away under the surface for years, putting on a brave face, staying cheerful and optimistic for the sake of the children in our care and their families, but it’s reached the point where we can’t paddle any more. We’re sinking.

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To put that into numbers: my school has an annual budget of around £6 million but, despite everything we’ve done to cut costs, from reducing hand towels in the toilets to not fixing our leaky roof, we’re now in a place where we’re going to have a deficit budget of at least £154,000 this financial year. This deficit is likely to more than double this financial year due to the unfunded pay increase.

We’d projected and budgeted for a 3 per cent increase but it’s going to be over 5 per cent and so that’s an extra 2 per cent that government expects me to find from the original funding the school was allocated. We were lucky in relation to our energy costs as we signed a three-year fixed deal last September and so, unlike many schools and families, we are not having to find all the extra money needed to cover increasing energy costs.

We’re on starvation rations and not only does this mean hope, possibility, joy, and opportunity are being wiped out of the curriculum, but without urgent and drastic action from the Government, we might be forced to close altogether. If I was to follow the Department for Education’s own guidance to balance the budget and spend no more that 75 per cent of my budget on staffing, I would have to make 20 more staff redundant or make my classes one teacher to 60 pupils. At that point, my school would become unsafe due to a complete lack of adequate adult supervision. We’d complete a risk assessment and determine that we would have to shut the school — but I’ll resign before I do that. Because what kind of an education system is that?

The question you’re probably asking is: how did we get here? Put simply and to name a few: inflation, energy-price rises, increasing national insurance and pension costs, an unfunded rise in teacher pay, and for many schools, falling pupil numbers. Funding is dependent on the number of students, so the funding for many London schools has become more and more precarious and unsustainable since families started making the post-pandemic migration out of London.

My school is in an equally challenging but different position as we are continuing to expand. When I became the headteacher in 2010 we had about 500 pupils, in 2018 we opened a second campus in the heart of Woolwich to provide places for an increase in pupil numbers locally. We currently have almost 1,000 pupils in the school from the age of 3 to 11. By 2024/25 we will be up to about 1,300 pupils from Nursery to Year 6 across both campuses. If our pupil numbers were to fall then the financial situation would become totally impossible very quickly.

Plumcroft primary school is strugglin with budget cuts

/ Plumcroft

The biggest issue is staffing. To give you an idea of the daily reality: we should have at least two members of staff in a class of 30 children — a qualified teacher and a teaching assistant — but we’re having to revert to a kind of Victorian-era model of one adult per 30 or more children because we simply don’t have enough staff and a growing number are so exhausted that they are having to take time off due to ill-health. Sometimes, it becomes necessary to split the 30 children up among other classes and the quality of learning quickly declines. To put this into numbers: all schools have a legal duty to provide every teacher with 10 per cent Planning, Preparation & Assessment (PPA) time during the working week. This equates to a morning or afternoon each week for every teacher. Due to lack of funding, this 10 per cent of every child’s time in class is covered by staff who are not qualified as teachers — that’s the equivalent of almost four weeks every academic year, and the equivalent of one full academic year of the eight years they spend in primary school (nursery to Year 6). Whilst this is technically legal, it’s madness. Some schools have sought to reduce this PPA cost by moving to a 4.5 day week. I understand why they made the decision but the impact on families is significant.

If schools like mine were purely businesses that had to break even and not even have a surplus or contingency fund (even though the government says we should), we’d have shut them years ago. The only reason we keep this particular business going is because it has children at the heart of it and we are vocationally driven to keep trying to cope so we can support and educate all the children in our care. But the threat of closure is still very real and, if that were to happen, children would have to stay at home full-time. To me, that’s a more compelling and frightening argument for a funding rise than any other. Yet we’re losing money, not gaining it — so what other option do we have than striking, so that somebody listens?

Staffing isn’t just becoming an issue in the classroom. Just simple things like playground duties are nearing impossible — I’m regularly being forced to ask staff to go out into the playground rather than actually taking their own lunch break. My staff agree because they know that the children need them and so goodwill keeps things going. Then there are so-called “extras” like school trips. Whether it’s a visit to the Natural History Museum or simply swimming lessons (it’s a requirement for all children to be able to swim 25m by the time they leave primary school), those take a hit when staffing runs out, because you need a certain number of staff when you’re taking children out of school, far more than in the classroom.

We’re not doing it for the money — we’re doing it because we care

Staff are working so hard for children to keep these extras, but staffing problems then become a vicious circle because teachers are constantly exhausted, so our absence rates go up and up. That’s before you even account for things like Covid and the flu. I’ve had to instruct my Senior Leadership Team that we can no longer use any agency cover staff for any staff absences as that will make our deficit even worse. We have almost 30 children with Education, Health & Care Plans, all have complex learning needs and some have complex medical needs. Many need 1:1 support at all times to ensure they are safe and learn. I have a duty to ensure the needs of our most vulnerable children are met. I have to prioritise the allocation of staffing to support our most vulnerable children which means the majority of children in the school get no extra adult support. This is simply unacceptable.

It’s not just day-to-day staffing that’s a problem. We also can’t afford to replace staff when they leave — to the point where one of our senior teachers recently passed away with terminal cancer, not only was her death utterly tragic (she was 45 and left a husband and two young children), but as a school leader I found myself thinking: “If I don’t replace her, I can save some money.” The fact that that has to be part of my thinking as a school leader is just madness. But that’s the reality of trying to run a school in England in 2022.

It’s got to the point where we’re looking at individual pounds and pence we can save: we can’t afford to refurbish our roof that leaks every time it rains or the damp walls or the old Victorian floors that need replacing. We’re having to fix broken toilets ourselves (or close them off), we’re reducing the number of hand towels we’re using, we’re deciding whether we keep paying for the school’s TV licence. How long can we keep using glue sticks? How many pencils do we really need? Can we afford to have exercise books for every subject?

Richard Slade, 57, is headteacher of Plumcroft Primary School in Greenwich

/ Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd

The iPads we use for our assessments and learning are nearly 10 years old now and we won’t be able to replace them when they stop working, so that’s a whole strand of learning that’s going to stop soon. Our playground equipment just has to be taped up when it breaks because we can’t afford to replace it, so even outdoor learning is becoming a thing of the past.

None of what I’m saying is me being dramatic. Part of my job is to be a realist and, whilst the Government seems to be funding the education system in a delusional and negligent way, I’m in the real world running a real school, so I can’t afford to be delusional about things and pretend everything’s OK. These are simply the facts.

Schools like mine are on a knife-edge — there isn’t enough money to do even the basics properly, but as educators, we are all so vocationally driven that for too many years we have simply coped. We do more hours, we share job roles and we consciously create the feeling that things are OK — because we’re in a profession that centres around children. We’re not doing it for the money; we’re doing it because we care.

The view from Plumcroft primary school in Greenwich

/ Plumcroft

To give you an example: even though we make a £25,000 loss on catering because the Government won’t increase the amount paid for free school meals, we decided that we have a moral imperative to keep providing freshly cooked hot meals each day — particularly for the children on free school meals, which has increased to 30 per cent since the pandemic (that’s almost 300 children). Our job in school is to deal with what we find — so we as staff just work harder and longer. And that’s relentless, day-after-day.

The challenge I now face is being realistic whilst maintaining a level of direction and optimism. I’ve got this almost schizophrenic feeling as a leader; on the one hand, we can’t run this financially any more and, on the other hand, I’ve got to pretend everything’s OK for the staff and the children. Schools would fall apart if leadership really communicated the level of complexity of the situation here. We need to try and maintain a sense of hope and possibility.

The downside of maintaining that sense of hope is that the toll is therefore taken by us as leaders. I’m 57 and I’d always planned to work until I was 70, if not longer, but I’ve literally been forced into retiring 10 years earlier than I want to. I feel I’ve just about got enough energy to keep battling for the next three years, but I’ll now be retiring at 60 because I’ve got a duty to myself, my wife and four children to still be around for the next 30 years (or more) — to not be unwell, or worse, simply not here. It breaks my heart to be saying this because I love what I do, but resignation or retirement are my only options left. The relentless pressure of trying to keep my school running for the last 10 years has left me totally exhausted. I don’t have enough left in the tank.

We’ll end up with generations of children who are nowhere near as educated as they should be

The saddest part of all of this is I’m not alone. If you asked any headteacher who is willing to put their head above the parapet, they would all say the same: they just don’t have enough staff to run their schools and they can’t balance the books. Many aren’t as calm as me; they’re tearing their hair out (not that I’ve got much left now either). As a profession, you’re unlikely to see headteachers doing what the Just Stop Oil protesters were doing on the M25 last week, but maybe we should consider taking such action? We live in a world where you have to be emotive and take extreme action to get politicians’ attention. What makes more sense is for school leaders to be talking directly to Ministers about the granular detail of school budgets without the delusional filter of the Department For Education (DfE) masking the reality in all schools. The lack of continuity and educational expertise in government is a further frustration. When all these things combine then is it surprising that strike action becomes the only option left to now try?

As the nurses are finding out at the moment, the danger with striking is that headline will be pushed that we just want more money for ourselves. But this vote to strike is not about us wanting more money in our pockets — I haven’t had a pay rise in years. Sadly, we have to make the dispute about pay as that is the legal advice from the NAHT lawyers. However; from my perspective as a headteacher, the real reason for striking is that we have a moral duty as trusted leaders in our community to fight for more money in the system so we can educate the children in our care as they are fundamentally the economic and social future of our country. It’s also an important lesson to share with our children that it is right at certain times to stand up and be counted and refuse to simply do what we are told.

Teachers shouldn’t be reliant on extreme actions like striking to educate future generations. The nursing strikes have been getting more attention than the teacher strikes which is right: because the NHS deals with literally life and death decisions. Education is a more of a slow-burn issue, but it’s just as serious in the long run and we should all care deeply about it because, ultimately, it’ll be the economy and our society that suffers. We’ll end up with generations of children who are nowhere near as educated as they should be, and their emotional resilience and wellbeing will be fundamentally damaged. Therefore, our economy will shrink because we won’t have the workforce to compete and succeed in world markets.

Nine out of 10 schools will have run out of money by the next school year due to the cost-of-living crisis, the National Association of Head Teachers is warning the Government (Liam McBurney/PA)

/ PA Archive

The Government has this phrase of “low-hanging fruit”, referring to things you can chop in schools. However; the phrase clearly implies that these things are not important if lost. But they are fundamental to delivering a world-class education. What we’re worried about is pupil wellbeing, resilience, empathy, compassion, their quality of education, their depth of understanding and their love of life-long learning — all of that is being diminished or even extinguished because schools are at this tipping point of functionality.

From our point of view, education is just like the NHS: it requires talented people who care, and enough of them to be able to do it well. Like doctors and nurses, we didn’t stop during the pandemic. We had over 200 children coming in every day during lockdowns and school holidays because we have a lot of key worker families and vulnerable children. I spent many days sorting out free school meal e-vouchers so families had an extra bit of money to buy food for their children, I did many home visits throughout the pandemic to hand deliver the e-vouchers as many families and no access to technology. These home visits also allowed me to help those who were struggling to cope. It then took me over a year and various formal complaints to get the £180,000 cost of the e-vouchers back from the government. So, like the NHS, we just kept going and, like the NHS, we’re at a point now where everybody’s literally exhausted and there are no more coping mechanisms left. It’s unreasonable for the Government to expect us to keep coping just because they know we will try to.

From everyone I’m speaking to, the call for strike action amongst school leaders is compelling but many feel very conflicted because it goes against our vocational instincts and training. The government are forcing us between a rock and a hard place in the hope that our vocation to educate children will keep us silent and compliant. I’m sure that the Department for Education will say: there’s more money in the education system than ever before – which is technically true, because there are more children, so there’s more money. But the overall amount (the quantum, as they like to call it) is insufficient – it’s as simple as that. We are close to the point where the school will become unsafe, educational standards will fall, and pupil and staff wellbeing will continue to suffer. If people want an education system for their children, there comes a point where, politically and socially, we have to pay for it.

What we need now is a political decision: we need at least a 15 per cent increase in funding – and we need it right now in order to function. Our school is still a joyful place, but that’s the challenge now: to keep it feeling joyful, even when we’re paddling like hell and sinking. My job as a leader is to try and persuade government ministers that they must do far better and properly fund the education of all our children to secure the future prosperity of our country and the citizens within it.

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