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23 January 2019updated 23 Jul 2021 1:50pm

Crumbling Britain: How English schools are paying the price for austerity

 Faced with rising pupil numbers, increasingly complex needs and inherited social work from stricken councils, teachers feel profoundly neglected. 

By Anoosh Chakelian

On a misty morning in Sittingbourne, Kent, seagulls waddled across a damp rugby pitch while some school pupils smoked, laughed and yelled to their friends. In this one area of Swale borough, where a strip of sea separates mainland Kent from the Isle of Sheppey, there are three schools within five minutes of each other: a boys’ grammar, a girls’ grammar and Fulston Manor, a comprehensive academy of 1,345 pupils.

Last September, for the first time in 47 years, Fulston’s headmaster, Alan Brookes, attended a demonstration. He was one of more than a thousand head teachers who marched on Downing Street in protest against education spending cuts (last year the Institute for Fiscal Studies calculated that spending per pupil in English schools had fallen by 8 per cent since 2010).

Head teachers aren’t “militant”, Brookes tells me when we meet the following term in his office, sparsely adorned with eclectic pieces of pupils’ art. His silver “A” “B” cufflinks are neatly in place for another day at school. So what compelled him to take to the streets once more? (The last time was in 1970s Cambridge as a student – “I’m not quite certain what I was marching for then,” he says.)

Over the last five years, Brookes says, his school has suffered “death by a thousand cuts”. Annual real-terms spending reductions are continuing and “showing no signs of abating”.

After 23 years as head of Fulston, and 43 years of teaching, Brookes, who is 65, has the wry cynicism and characteristic frankness of veterans of the profession. He and his staff ring an “irony bell” when they’re being sarcastic in meetings (“God bless the DfE for uniting us by starving us of money!” is his contribution when I visit).

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Brookes cannot afford heads of department, forcing his teachers to take on multiple full-time jobs. Deputy head teacher Maria Gash is also head of science, and manages the curriculum. An assistant head runs the computer science, business studies and modern languages departments, and also teaches for over half of the timetable. This is one reason for Fulston’s “desperate” recruitment crisis. Brookes advertised for science and maths postings before Christmas and still has “zero applicants”. “It’s a great thing [job] to do,” says Brookes. “[But] I think it is hard. It is tough. Student needs are more complex than there were previously; there is a lack of recognition of the value of education in society as a whole.”

The school rents out classrooms to local clubs and private businesses such as Slimming World – moving the entire social sciences department and the bottom floor of the sixth form block last July during exams to try to raise revenue. “We had to uproot teachers and students and house them elsewhere in the school,” Brookes says, as he shows me around those five classrooms. “We disrupted them.”

The average secondary school budget deficit in 2018 was £483,569, according to an Education Policy Institute report, while 87 per cent of head teachers told a survey by the campaign group Worth Less? this year that they have less money in real terms than in 2018.

The DfE, however, maintains that every local authority has received more money per pupil since 2017, with core funding and top-up funding (allocated to “high needs” schools) due to reach record levels in 2019-20.

Yet Brookes warned that such pronouncements lack “credibility”. Faced with rising pupil numbers, increasingly complex needs and inherited social work from austerity-stricken councils, teachers like him feel neglected.

A patchwork of buildings – from a shiny new university-style sixth form to shipping containers for history and geography lessons to a condemned block opposite a disused greenhouse for science – Fulston is a good school with a varied curriculum.

Photography A Level students proudly tell us their university offers as they pore over their final portfolios, Year Sevens cook delicious-smelling cheese and potato bakes, and former pupils are in fashion, creative arts and sport – one plays for Chelsea women’s football club, and another was in the Les Misérables film.

Yet Fulston school struggles to sustain its extensive curriculum (74 per cent of secondary schools surveyed this month have narrowed their subject range) and its special needs provision is also imperilled.

Hosted in a temporary building with a leaking gutter and a hole in the floor – scenes reminiscent of the 1990s – special needs classes and the exclusion unit are staffed by just one full-time teacher, with some extra help (Fulston has lost ten teaching assistants in the last seven years). Some of the children here have reading ages of five.

Twenty two per cent of Fulston students are covered by the pupil premium (which provides additional funding for disadvantaged children), 11 per cent have special educational needs or a disability, and 18 pupils are in care – a record number for Fulston.

“We could spend all our time being a branch of social services,” Brookes laments. The pupil referral unit in Swale has closed, and there is pressure on high needs funding from the council. Only one of Fulston’s pupils, a girl with paraplegia who cannot communicate, receives high needs funding (“and even that took a fight”, says Brookes).

Primary schools in many areas are also under financial strain. Cathy Rowland, head teacher for 14 years of the outstanding Dobcroft Infant School in an affluent Sheffield suburb, is struggling to fund basic resources.

Parents have provided boxes of glue sticks, mugs for the staff room and even tissues “for the cold season”, I was told. Nine months ago, parents set up a standing order to aid the school, funding everything from books to computers. When I visit, Rowland shows me the resurfaced playground and the worn benches to be replaced, all through parents’ munificence.

“It doesn’t sit totally comfortably with me,” Rowland admits. “Parents shouldn’t feel the need to do that.”

Dobcroft is a beautifully decorated school stretched across a main block and a 30-year-old mobile building, with immaculate, vibrant displays and polite children who queue up to hug Rowland as she shows me round. Fox faces painted on folded paper plates cover one wall, pupils have written their goals on little paper footballs, and one corner has been turned into a “Dick Whittington castle” for a pantomime.

“The displays are lovely but if you look, it’s shabby,” says Rowland. “Lack of capital is the real issue.” The library roof has been leaking since last September: a large turquoise water tray catches the drips among the little chairs where children sit to read. It flooded completely last year. “It was so dreadful,” Rowland recalls. “It was covered in water, an indoor water feature.” A tile recently fell from the ceiling of the girls’ toilets (“narrowly missing a child”) and has yet to be replaced. In one classroom, I could put my finger through a hole in the wall. But no resources are available for repairs. Rowland reveals that she’s even had to clean the school toilets herself at times.

Dobcroft has a reputation as an “inclusive school”, and children with complex needs travel from far to attend. A special sensory room, lit with fairy lights and filled with balls and cushions, helps to soothe some autistic pupils. Other children who benefit from special provision have medical needs, Down’s Syndrome and global developmental delay (an umbrella term for impaired cognitive and physical development).

Rowland fears failing to support these children adequately in the future. “The budget gets tighter and it plays on my mind – for the most vulnerable children, you can’t provide everything they need.”

In a very different community back in Kent, Alan Brookes echoes these concerns. “We’re letting some of these children down because they desperately need more than we’ve got,” he tells me. “These poor bloody waify, battered, shattered kids – God, we’ve got our share. We’ve got a chance to make a difference and it frustrates me that we haven’t got more resources for them… It’s just going to roll on until such time as we turn off the lights and go away.”

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This article appears in the 23 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Who’s running Britain?