Suzanne Wright and Chris Fields

Author: Suzanne Wright and Chris Fields

06/06/2019 14:00:04

Suzanne Wright and Chris Fields are the chair and vice-chair of governors at Holy Family Catholic Primary School in Runnymede. In this guest blog, they outline why they invited the Chancellor back to school.  

On Friday 14th May we welcomed the Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond MP to our school to talk about the future of education. We invited Mr Hammond following a call to action from NGA’s Funding the Future campaign which seeks to highlight the impact of school funding pressures to members of Parliament.  

Our school is a one-form entry primary school in Surrey and is one of the top performing schools in Runnymede. Through the incredible talent, dedication and commitment of staff, governors, parents, grandparents and children, our school has collected national recognition for outcomes and innovation in education and sport. But we have significant concerns about current budget restrictions and we fear that we cannot possibly continue to operate at this very high level unless the overall school budget is increased. As a proactive governing board, we felt the need to take action. We couldn’t sit idly by and let other people deal with the difficult funding situation we are experiencing.

Mr Hammond with his tour guides in Holy Family Catholic Primary School's new garden

Financial uncertainty

The school has £46k of reserves built up over the years. However, due to cost pressures we have set a deficit budget and according to our five year financial plan, the reserves will be fully depleted in four years. We have found it very difficult to undertake long term financial planning, to account for well-deserved increases to teacher pay and pensions for example, because we are unsure if they will be fully or partially funded by the government. 

As a single form entry school, we are very vulnerable to financial instability and further external pressures have contributed to the uncertainty we are experiencing. A number of additional responsibilities and costs have fallen on the school. Over recent years support from our local authority has diminished, especially safeguarding and special educational needs and/ or disabilities (SEND) services. The funding squeeze on social and youth services and an increase in safeguarding responsibilities means our school is now on the front line when supporting vulnerable children and families. Parents turn to us for academic support, pastoral, financial, anxiety and stress, counselling, parenting and bereavement support. 

Our financial vulnerability as a small primary school, combined with diminishing support from the local authority led to our decision to join a multi-academy trust, the Xavier Catholic Academy Trust.

Back to school

Mr Hammond has been our MP for a long time and enjoys a good relationship with our school – he once took our pupils on a memorable tour of the Houses of Parliament.

The Chancellor was given a whistle stop tour of the school. The building looks fabulous – 10 years ago it was very tired looking but we have since turned this around through the generous support of our community. We set out that much of this improvement has been achieved through good will – those interactive white boards and an immersive suite? They were funded by the parent association and grant funding.

Due to financial constraints, the school asks for voluntary contributions of £10 a month per family (with due emphasis that the contribution is voluntary and all proceeds are invested in the school). We are a forward thinking school when it comes to securing income generation and business partnerships, often contacting local or national businesses for funding or sponsorship. We utilise highly-skilled finance professionals – our vice-chair Chris is a chartered accountant, as is the school business manager. We spend a significant amount of time and attention focused on raising money, through lettings and a cafĂ©, to ensure the site works at maximum capacity and we get the most of every penny. We have also started to implement charges for extra-curricular clubs run by school staff: it’s unfortunate but they were simply unviable without a contribution toward staff costs.

Mr Hammond with the Reception Class who were learning phonics

Difficult decisions

The Chancellor was very honest with us: he had not brought along his cheque book and he has concerns about bad resource management in the schools sector. Mr Hammond acknowledged the vulnerability of small primary schools but said that resources are thinly spread and he must balance spending across all public services: the NHS and others.

In response, we tried to communicate what seemingly small changes to funding means to our school, beyond abstract figures and percentages. We thought it was really important to bring a sense of reality to the current situation and to outline the human cost – on our staff, our children. Our headteacher was able to express the immense pressure he is under to maintain a balanced budget which is distracting from his core purpose: education.

Our school staffing costs account for 80% of the budget so there is little room for discretion. We set out several of the difficult decisions already taken by the board for financial reasons which includes:

  • Maximising class sizes, e.g. 30 in Key Stage 1, up to 34 in Key Stage 2.
  • Limiting recruitment to Newly Qualified Teachers (NQTs), a short-term financial fix that is putting more pressure on experienced teachers to mentor them. We are building up issues in the future when these members of staff rightly move to more expensive pay ranges.
  • Undertaking a total re-structuring of Special Educational Need provision within the school.
  • Sharing Teaching Assistants (TAs) between classes.
  • Upskilling our TAs so they are now far more regularly required to teach classes when teachers are absent.
  • Fewer mid-day supervisors with TAs now covering and the headteacher supervising in the dining hall.

Overall, we felt that Mr Hammond was very receptive to our concerns and he said that though he is not an educationalist, he was concerned about the need to deploy NQTs and TAs in this way.

Our headteacher asked if the Chancellor had a message for the parents of Holy Family School?

Mr Hammond reiterated the huge importance of educating the next generation for growing and sustaining the future economy and the value he placed on hard-working school staff.

A call to action

Overall, it was a good day with a lot of excitement for the children. As governors, it felt good to take some action and to outline the immense pressures falling on our staff who continue to deliver the highest standard of education to the children in our school despite enormous challenges.

We call on governing boards experiencing similar funding pressures to get in touch with their MP – if the Chancellor can find the time, so can your MP!

NGA has some helpful advice available on the Funding the Future webpage to support governors and trustees to get the most of the meeting and most importantly, the pupils will get a lot out of it too.

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