Michelle Gay is the headteacher of Osborne primary, a 270-pupil local authority school in Erdington, on the north-eastern edge of Birmingham. In total, 25% of her pupils are categorised as having special educational needs, 39% have a first language other than English, and 43% are eligible for free school meals. The Guardian reports.
Osborne primary has an urgent issue: a lack of money. Ofsted rates it as “a good school with outstanding leadership”, and since 2016 its numbers have been expanding: in September 2019 it will take on another new class, but Gay won’t have enough money to pay for a new teacher, so the teaching will be done by existing staff. She says she needs at least 13 classroom assistants to help children who need extra support – not least those who need help with English – but only has 11. The school used to get about £100,000 a year from Birmingham city council and other agencies to pay three staff who work on child protection and supporting parents, as well as counselling children with mental health issues. That money now has to come from the school’s own budgets. So to save £1,500, swimming lessons have been cut back, along with £2,000 worth of music tuition. Gay has explained all this on ITV Evening News and in the pages of the Birmingham Mail, but to no avail.
Last year came perhaps the most drastic step of all, when she took the decision to cut the school week by half a day, meaning that most children now go home at 1pm on Fridays. The move still leaves the school meeting its legal requirements for teaching time, but staff now do their planning and preparation work in the hours freed up by children leaving early – which means their classes don’t have to be taken care of and the school saves a precious £35,000 a year. Gay says she took the decision after talking to another headteacher who had done the same; now “a couple of other schools in Erdington are doing it and it’s starting to spread across the city”.
So how has this happened? In England, funding per pupil for education between the ages of five and 16 stayed just about flat in real terms between 2010 and 2016, but schools were then hammered by changes to national insurance payments and pension arrangements that led to a cut of about 5% in their per-pupil spending. As the baby boom of the early 21st century pushed up pupil numbers, money for vital educational support was hacked back: in 2015, for instance, the then chancellor, George Osborne, announced the phasing out of the £600m-a-year education services grant, which helped with everything from safeguarding, through speech and language support, to tackling truancy and maintaining school playing fields.Look closely and you see yet another manifestation of something very familiar: a country with a hacked-back state, where the people in power cling on to a sepia-tinted vision that has nothing to do with the demands of the 21st century, but has a human cost so huge it is becoming almost impossible to measure.