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29 July 2019

“We feel like guinea pigs:” the schools being forced to close on Friday afternoons

As students break up for summer, 250 schools are saying goodbye to their five-day weeks – and thousands of kids are preparing to lose 10 per cent of their primary education.

By Indra Warnes

In his Budget last October, Philip Hammond handed over £400m to schools, suggesting that they could put the money towards “those little extras”.

The former chancellor was out of touch; in many schools the little extras have long since been scrapped. Gone are their art supplies, their school trips, their teaching assistants, and their pastoral care. And now, for thousands of pupils across the country, gone, too, are their Friday afternoons.

“We need £3.8bn,” Kate Taylor, a primary school teacher from Birmingham, tells me, “and then £1.1bn, year on year, until 2023.” Without this money, more and more schools will eventually be forced to scale back to a four-and-a-half day week – a 10 per cent reduction in education; equivalent, by the time children finish primary school, to two full terms lost.

Kate is a co-founder of Save Our Schools: West Midlands, a group of parents and teachers protesting the cuts to school budgets. She tells me that the group has uncovered 27 schools in Birmingham that are either already reducing their hours or will be doing so from September. On a national level, the group estimates that this number rises to around 250 schools.

The decision to cut schooling hours hasn’t come lightly; it is a last resort born of a legal requirement. Each week teachers are entitled to 10 per cent non-contact time, known as PPA. This is time away from students for planning, preparation and assessment, while their class is covered either by another teacher from the school or an agency member of staff. But, pushed to the edge, schools can’t afford this cover anymore.

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And so they close their doors. From September, many headteachers have been forced to decide that all teachers will have their PPA at the same time: on Friday afternoons. And instead of paying staff to cover this period, the children will simply be sent home.

Asked how much money this will save primary schools, Kate sighs. “We’re not even talking about a significant amount of money,” she says. “It’s tragic; for the amount of disruption it causes, it possibly saves them £30-40,000 pounds.”

Kings Heath Primary School in Birmingham is one school where parents are readying themselves for such disruption. The school previously had fairly typical hours: 9am to 3.20pm, five days a week. Yet come September, the children will finish at 1pm on a Friday. Legally required to provide school dinners, Kings Heath must also start Friday lunchtimes earlier, meaning the kids will effectively lose out on a full afternoon of lessons.

Kevin DaCosta’s six-year-old son Gil is a pupil at Kings Heath. Like most other parents at the school, both he and his wife Indy are in full-time work. With Kevin a self-employed engineer working nationwide, the couple are currently weighing up whether it would be better to fork out for childcare every Friday afternoon, or have him lose a full day’s work each week.

“The work I do, I’m driving all over the country. I can’t just go for two hours and come back; there’s no point in going at all. Taking half a day off is as good as missing the whole day’s work,” he explains, “and if I don’t work, I don’t get paid.”

Gen Upton and Iain Galloway are also parents at the school. They are fortunate that Iain can rearrange his working week to allow him to pick up their six-year-old, Ted, early on a Friday. But this doesn’t ease their fears for their son’s education.

“There’s no real study that we’re aware of looking at the impact of this over a children’s entire education, or their life. We just don’t know what happens when children miss half a day each week for so many years,” says Iain. “We feel like guinea pigs.”

The drastic resort may have angered the parents of Kings Heath, but it has hardly shocked them; the school’s financial problems have been increasingly evident for years. Class sizes have increased, Iain tells me, to the point where there are now on average 32 pupils in a class – exceeding the legal limit of 30. This is a nationwide trend: in 2006, there were 26.3 pupils in the average class, rising to 27.1 in 2016, when 1 per cent of pupils were in classes of 36 or more.

To make matters worse, the problems associated with large classes are being further compounded by a lack of in-class support. “Teaching assistants would have been one per class, right up until the final years of primary school. But now they’re very much shared,” explains Gen.

When schools are stretched to the limit, it is the pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) who suffer most. A report by the think tank IPPR North earlier this year found that SEND school funding has fallen by 17 per cent across England since 2015, with the north worst affected, at 22 per cent. Without this funding, many schools are being forced to turn away SEND pupils. As Birmingham Yardley MP Jess Phillips, herself a parent of a child at Kings Heath, wrote “disabled people are being cleansed from our schools by cuts”.

Kevin, too, accused the SEND cuts of “pitting ourselves against each other”, adding “we shouldn’t be in a position to have to say ‘well, start capping the amount of SEN kids you put in our schools’ – what a horrible way to think about it. I’d be the first person to respect the right of my neighbours for their kids to have a proper education, as well as my own son.”

The financial struggles aren’t just visible in admissions and lessons. “It’s gotten to the point that parents have gotten used to volunteering, donating, fundraising. That’s the new normal,” he says. “When we first took Gil to the nursery, that wasn’t happening so much, but now every term there’s fundraising for this, that and the other, and we’ve been asked to volunteer to help guide kids to activities, and help out in classes even.”

Kings Heath isn’t alone in increasingly relying on parental donations; in April the Guardian reported that 1,000 schools across England are resorting to online crowdfunding – often for supplies as rudimentary as pencils and textbooks.

In our conversations, Kevin, Gen and Iain all stressed that they don’t blame Kings Heath. “We know that they’ve tried, you know, everything, to not have to get into this position,” Gen says. “And they’ve been very, very transparent about their financial records and allowed parents to look through [school accounts]”.

For Kevin, one of the biggest disappointments has been “a frankly, pathetic reaction from the government”, which he describes as “mean spirited”. He explains: “[the government is] talking up the investments they have made without addressing the reality, and making it a political football instead of just a basic, foundational aspect of what should be provided for any child.”

It’s true that in many cases it is the schools that are blamed while the government parrots the line that school funding is at an all-time high, omitting that record numbers of pupils means that the per-pupil spending is down. A spokesperson for the Department for Education told the New Statesman that it is “unacceptable for schools to shorten their school week” when they are not doing so to enhance education.

The spokesperson added: “While we have made funding fairer, we recognise the budgeting challenges schools face and that we are asking them to do more. That is why we have introduced a wide range of support to help schools make the most of their resources, including sector experts who are providing tailored advice to individual schools that need it.”

But teachers are often less than thrilled with this advice from visiting government officials. “How can it be them [the schools]? How can they suddenly all not be able to manage their budgets? It’s nonsense,” says a frustrated Kate. “Then when they have the [government] efficiency advisers go in, they say things like, ‘oh, you just need to reduce your food portions at lunchtimes’ – just nonsense. The advice that the government advisers are giving is just not fit for purpose.”

It’s not yet known what the future holds for these primary schools. Many are hoping that with a much-needed funding boost, they will be able to reverse the timetable changes and reopen on Friday afternoons. Without, they may yet be forced to scale back further, or even close permanently – possibly leading to overcrowding at surviving schools.

Until then it is down to parents and teachers to muddle through. As they attend marches, write to local politicians, rearrange work, and scrape together the money for childcare, in Westminster, the political agenda remains dominated by Brexit.

“In any other era, it would feel like this would be an absolute crisis,” Kevin says, at the end of our chat. “And yet, it’s almost been swept under the carpet despite the activism on the ground. And it’s not just happening in our school, it’s happening all over the country and it’s absolutely disgusting.”

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