Last month a group of school governors took the decision to go on strike in protest over funding cuts. This guest blog from Caroline Wheeler reflects on the tough decisions governors are being forced to make.
Caroline Wheeler is the vice chair of governors at a primary school in South London.
In what is believed to be the first action of its kind in England, governors at more than 20 schools in West Sussex downed tools and withdrew their labour for a day.
Spokesman for the governors Malcolm Gordon said: “Our job is to help schools to give children the best possible start to life. We refuse to sit quietly by while their future is threatened.”
It is a sentiment that will be shared by many governors and, indeed, teachers and parents.
And while some governors said they opposed the strike, I have nothing but admiration for those who made a stand.
I serve as vice-chair of governors at a wonderful primary school in south London. It is a school that, despite having a larger than average cohort of children from disadvantaged backgrounds and pupils who speak English as a second language, has achieved some of the best results in the country. But it is not only its academic achievements that make this an outstanding school – as recently recognised by Ofsted – it is the spiritual, moral and social cultural development that is offered to pupils by the diligent and hardworking staff.
So it is with dismay that I found myself last week in a governors’ meeting staring at the school’s budget and realising that everything that it has achieved for its pupils is now in jeopardy.
With a budget showing a significant deficit, governors were told that we would now have to make tough decisions about where we make cuts.
Do we cut our modern languages budget? Do we stop offering swimming lessons to older pupils? Do we cease paying for speech and language therapy? While at the moment the budget is just a series of numbers on a page, for every cut we make it will have a human consequence.
It will be a child who never gets the chance to learn a foreign language, limiting their life chances. It will be a child whose speech development is impaired.
Like those governors who decided to strike, I did not become a governor to impair the ability of teachers to deliver the best education for its pupils. I did not give up my free time – which as a mother of three is already scarce – to help work alongside teachers only to then take an axe to all the things that make the school great.
While one of the main functions of the governing body is to oversee the financial management of the school, I think you would find few governors who would see speech and language therapy as a luxury. And yet these are the types of services that governing bodies up and down the country will have to consider cutting, and that is before the controversial new funding formula comes into effect next year.
Before the snap general election was called, momentum was building behind a back-bench rebellion opposed to the reforms, which the National Audit Office warned would leave schools facing a £3 billion funding cut. But the growing rebellion was stopped in its tracks when Theresa May announced her decision to take the country to the polls.
However, last week the Conservatives promised in their manifesto an extra £1 billion a year to tackle the school funding shortages. This will mostly be funded with £650 million per year from stopping free lunches to all infant pupils.
But the Institute for Fiscal Studies says this will still mean two to three per cent real-term cuts in per pupil spending, because of rising costs and pupil numbers.
“No school will see a cash terms cut in spending per pupil but most will see a real-terms cut,” it said.
Headteachers’ leaders have accused the Conservatives of “sleight of hand” over the funding proposals, saying that what is being offered is not enough to “counteract the rising costs which are hitting schools”.
While it remains to be seen what the actual impact will be, I would urge the prime minister to listen hard to the message being delivered by the striking school governors last month.
And they should remember that behind every number on a spreadsheet there is a human face and a child’s future that will be determined by the life chances they are offered at school.
The 2016 annual NGA/TES survey revealed that 60% of respondents expected to reduce staffing over the next two years due to budget constraints. NGA is continuing to campaign for the overall size of the schools budget to be increased through the Funding the Future Campaign