‘Stark choice’ as schools struggle to foot bill for poorer students

Kevin Prunty is executive head teacher at Cranford community college, a high-achieving school in Hounslow, west London. His pupils are ambitious and successful, but many come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

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Like other schools serving deprived areas, Cranford find itself increasingly playing a sophisticated welfare role in its community. It is also footing the bill for uniforms, PE kits, shoes, lunches and educational trips from a diminishing budget, to subsidise parents who cannot afford to meet the costs.

But with school budgets under pressure and further cuts expected there are fears they will not be able to continue to fill the gap.

“Schools know already that there are sizeable further cuts to funding on the way – and whilst we are currently able to fund these additional needs – it will soon become more difficult and perhaps impossible to justify doing so,” says Prunty.

He says it’s not possible to measure the additional cost in the sense of how many uniforms, how many trips, how many meals. Instead he describes the kind of scenarios his staff deal with on a daily basis to illustrate the level of need.

A year 7 boy needs additional support but his symptoms don’t meet the threshold to qualify for child and adolescent mental health services (Camhs).

An educational welfare officer helps a family where the father is suffering from a mental illness and keeps telling his children they are terminally ill. Another colleague intervenes to help a child with impaired hearing.

Someone else takes a pupil out to buy a suit for a job interview for a traineeship. It’s not just the money – they coach them for the interview and make sure the suit fits properly. “There’s nobody to say whether the arms are too long, so some of our staff take the responsibility,” says Prunty.

And things are getting worse. Since pupils returned to school in September, staff have noticed an increase in the number of children who are not eligible for free school meals who come in without any money for lunch. Inevitably the school provides – it all costs and meanwhile budgets are shrinking.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has estimated that increasing costs and growing pupil numbers will result in an 8% cut in funding per student by 2020 and an inquiry has been begun by the public accounts committee to examine the financial sustainability of schools.

The sector would like to hear there is more money for schools in the autumn statement later this week – the reality is that schools like Prunty’s are likely to lose out in the long-awaited redrafting of the national funding formula (NFF) in which money from well-funded urban schools working with disadvantaged families is expected to move to less well-funded schools in less needy areas.

He has already had to address a £1m shortfall in the budget caused by a cut in grant funding from the government and rises in pension costs, national insurance costs and below-inflationary salary rises. He has managed to balance the budget but twelve jobs had to be cut – four teachers and the rest support staff.

At another school in the area, a principal who asks not to be named says he increasingly feels like a debt collector, having to chase up parents who owe the school money. As families at his school struggle to make ends meet, many are building up large debts. Some owe hundreds of pounds for school lunches and he estimates that parental debt is costing the school £10,000 a year.

Last year the school handed out 45 uniform grants worth £100 each to parents in need. Then there are equipment grants for things like scientific calculators. He feels for the parents, many of whom are in low paid jobs and are surprised to find they are not entitled to free school meals for their children. “There’s a lot that’s adding to pressure on parents. It’s uncomfortable to be talking to them about the money they owe the school. But that money is money we are not spending on teachers,” he says. “Schools are not in the debt management business. It’s not sustainable to be running this level of debt.”

The issue has been raised by Seema Malhotra, Labour MP for Feltham and Heston, who has become increasingly concerned about the hidden burden on schools’ budgets. “Schools are being faced with a stark choice,” she said. “Let children from poorer backgrounds miss out on educational opportunities and experiences, or pick up the costs and take on financial debt. Budgets are already under pressure and with further cuts to school funding, helping families in need is set to get harder.”

At Springwest Academy in nearby Feltham, which also serves a community with high levels of disadvantage, there are similar concerns. Pastoral mentors deal with calls day in and day out from families with worries about housing and finances; school uniforms and shoes are being paid for more frequently out of the school’s hardship fund and almost four out of ten pupils (38.3%) are referred for counselling or other mental-health support.

Victoria Eadie is chief executive of the Tudor Park Education Trust which includes Springwest. “It does worry me what’s going to happen. I don’t know a school in Hounslow that is not having to go though some form of restructuring and quite severe cuts.” Until now her school, like others, has been able to step in to support the neediest. With further cuts, she says, “schools will not be able fill the gap”.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Sally Weale, for The Guardian on Tuesday 22nd November 2016 07.00 Europe/London

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