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Bristol heads speak out over “national disgrace” school funding cuts that will see SEN pupils with reduced support and classrooms stripped of teaching staff.

Illustration: Gordy Wright

A combination of local and national factors have collided to create a perfect storm for Bristol schools’ finances. Schools across the city are employing measures, including cuts to staffing, reduction of special educational needs (SEN) provision for SEN-certified pupils, along with cutting extracurricular activities and trips, in order to balance the books.

Now the Bristol branch of the NAHT (National Association of Headteachers) is speaking out publicly about the strain caused by the government’s funding changes, and is aiming to mobilise parents to lobby MPs on schools cuts.

“I’m sure there are a million ways you can spin figures and data however, I cannot understand that the government think it’s OK to say they’re increasing funding for schools when they’re not. That is an out-and-out lie,” says James Barry, head of Parson’s Street Primary School and secretary of the NAHT Bristol branch.

The Department for Education (DfE) claim that schools have more funding than ever before – but since December, heads have been mobilising nationwide. Barry says this academic year the cuts really started to bite in Bristol, and are the result of national and Bristol-specific factors, where huge overspends from previous years are still being recovered under harsh austerity hitting SEN students hardest.

“I don’t know how they can cut it any further without taking money away from children more than it already has been. I’ve got instances at my school where I am funding children to the deficit of my overall school budget, and I know that that’s not an isolated case,” he explains.

“I’ve got a child at my school who is absolutely thriving here, but with physical and medical needs could not survive in mainstream without that one-to-one provision that we provide for her. But at the same time I’ve got pupils arriving where I can’t offer one-to-one provision.”

“I cannot understand that the government think it’s OK to say they’re increasing funding for schools when they’re not. That is an out-and-out lie.”

At Parson’s Street Primary School, Barry has written to parents and carers to explain the dire straits the school is in, which has seen it reduce the number of teaching assistants employed from 21 teaching assistants last year, to 15 this year and, he predicts, another drop to about 10 next year.

He wants to see parents speak out about the cuts’ impacts. Parents and guardians will face paying higher contributions for any activities, such as music or trips, beyond the lessons that schools are legally obligated to provide – something that will add to household finances already under strain from the council tax rise and welfare changes.

Barry adds that the DfE has not responded to any attempts at dialogue with the NAHT branch, who sent an open letter to education secretary Justine Greening in January. Karin Smyth, Labour MP for Bristol South, has agreed to take up the issue in parliament.

In the council, Cllr Hiscott, Cabinet lead for education and skills, has pulled together a cross-party group of councillors to prepare a council response and to lobby government about education funding. Core city leaders have also written to the government about the problems.

Bristol isn’t the only place schools cuts are being felt severely. A head in Berkshire recently resigned in protest, while in West Sussex heads publicly warned they may be forced to cut school hours due to lack of staffing. London, like Bristol, is facing real cuts under the government’s new funding formula that heads warn will see recent school improvements slide backwards.

Barry felt there was no choice but to ‘stick his head above the parapet’ and speak out publicly: “It’s a national disgrace. What’s happening is simply not right…not when it’s affecting our children.”

To explore total amounts that Bristol’s schools are predicted to lose, on an institution and per pupil-level, check out the School Cuts website, created by various national unions here.

What’s caused the Bristol schools funding crisis?

Brace yourself, it’s dense…

Nationwide pressures

Heads are grappling with a list of new or increased costs: Teachers’ pay has increased 1% this year after a freeze, and there are cost of living impacts compounding problems with schools funding generally, including an increase in the non-domestic rates that schools must pay. Changes instigated last year to the weighting given to deprivation-related funding also saw many Bristol schools lose funds, while the newly compulsory apprenticeship levy required from schools further piles on the pressure.

National factors bearing on the local authority include the introduction of the Children and Families Act in September 2014 which extended the responsibilities of the Local Authority (LA) for students up with SEN or disability up to 25 years of age, from 19 – with no reflective increase in budget.

The government also removed the ability for local authorities to move funding between different ‘dedicated schools grant’ blocks (such as early years, high needs, etc), which may help mitigate some budget pressures, in the 2015/16 school year.

National funding failure

In January this year, the government published its guidance on a new ‘national funding formula’ (NFF) that will replace the current system of resource allocation administered through local authorities. Under the proposals schools will receive per pupil funding based on a fixed formula which takes into account variables like additional needs, such as deprivation or English as a second language, and location.

In preparation for the change, which is due to come into force in 2018/19, the government is already dramatically reducing the ‘education support grant’ – the block used for central services and administered by the LA. Notes from the January schools forum estimate that this funding will fall £1.197million short of the amount spent on supporting schools in 2016/17.

The National Audit Office has warned that schools need an 8% increase in funding to be able to cope with increased costs. Most Bristol schools are expected to lose out under the NFF, but even those who can expect a gain will see around a 6% increase – meaning their funds are still being cut in real terms.

The local picture

In May 2016, schools were tasked with an urgent reductions in ‘high needs’ spending, after a £5.57million overspend was reported by the local authority. Sudden cuts in SEN provision were implemented during the summer term. The deficit has rolled over into the current school year, with a forecast overspend of £5million predicted to persist until the end of next year.

The £5.57million increase in high needs spending was attributed to, in part: high numbers of secondary school exclusions (circa £1m), an increase in the population and numbers of school based request for ‘top up’ funding for pupils with SEN (circa £1.5m) and the introduction of minimum banding levels for special schools to maintain financial stability (circa £2m). The pressure has left schools struggling to accommodate pupil’s special educational needs, says Barry.

To address the deficit, the LA this academic year has changed its approach to funding pupils for their SEN support. Previously schools could apply for extra ‘top up’ funding for pupils whose additional needs necessitated more than an extra £6,000 per year. Now, top up funding is only available above £10,000.

Barry says that this change contributes to the squeeze on school’s general staffing budgets: the extra £4,000 now included as part of the pupil’s SEN budget is actually the base amount per every pupil that pays for teaching staff.

Paul Jacobs, service director for education and skills, said the process of distributing top up funding made planning difficult for the LA. Special needs requirements are worked out between schools and the local authority, on the basis of individual pupil’s needs only – without a big picture view.

He says the issue “returns to the simple fact that different, less expensive ways to support [pupils] with SEND must be the focus and all partners with state funding must look to ensure they are using their budgets appropriately”. He added that the authority was working hard to reduce permanent exclusions with a Pushed Out Learners strategy.

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