Layoffs and bankrupt schools: headteachers in England warn of Covid consequences

Covid-19’s legacy on education in England will be thousands of schools going broke, staff laid off and bigger class sizes unless the government steps in to help, say the two headteacher associations, as they count the cost of keeping classrooms safe.

In one small education area alone, Stockport, in north-west England, more than half of schools fear their budgets will be in deficit this year, says the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT). Across England, many schools have used up their year’s allowance for cover staff in just half a term because of the number of teachers and classroom assistants having to isolate at home. One secondary school (see profile below) has produced accounts anonymously showing a spend of £339,000 since April 2020 on cover and keeping its premises safe.

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It is a desperate situation, because the costs are falling on budgets already stretched to the limit through years of underfunding, says Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL). “Most of a school’s budget is spent on staffing, so the inevitable conclusion of having less money is that they have to cut staffing. This increases class sizes, and reduces the capacity to deliver pastoral care and provide additional classroom support for pupils who benefit from that. Unless the government acts, one of the legacies of Covid will be yet another funding crisis in education,” he says.

Jim Nicholson, head of Mellor primary in Stockport, and the NAHT’s north-west president, has launched a petition calling on the government to “fully fund schools for Covid-19 costs and provide relief for loss of income”. Since April, his 225-pupil primary has lost £29,000 it would have received through providing before- and after-school care and outreach work, on top of the £9,500 he has spent on supply staff in the first half of the autumn term alone. In addition to the expense of adapting the premises to separate class “bubbles” (£1,386), and the cost of cleaning and hygiene for the half-term (£2,738), the school has spent an extra £484 on information technology for remote learning, and £2,000 on providing individual curriculum items, pens and pencils so children do not have to share.

“Then there are the hidden costs, such as our metered water bill. On average, children are washing their hands five times more times a day, which will have a significant impact on our bill – which was £3,047 last year,” he says. Schools will also incur higher heating costs this winter through keeping windows open for ventilation, he adds.

Spent £339,219; received, diddly squat

School X is a medium-sized 11-18 school in the north-west of England with a total budget of £3.7m a year. Its headteacher has opened up the books to demonstrate how serious the problem is. Already, halfway through the accounting year (April 2020 to April 2021), it has spent £339,219, or 9% of its budget, on Covid-related costs.

1. Supply costs: £78,000 over the first half year, which is 150% of its usual full-year
2. Extra staff contracts eg cleaner: £63,000
3. Free school meal vouchers, free school meals during lockdown, postage for vouchers, postage for work sent to pupils at home: £46,537
4. Subscriptions for remote learning: £3,885
5. Purchase of headsets and visualisers for remote learning: £8,200
6. Remote communication with parents: £5,716
7. Additional CCTV for social distancing: £2,248
8. Sanitising dispensers and products: £10,572
9. Classroom anti-bacterial sprays: £3,381
10. Disposable paper towels: £3,860
11. Replacing thumbprint biometrics with swipecard: £1,158
12. Steam cleaners: £398
13. Two-way radios: £640
14. Face coverings: £2,742
15. Fogging machines and liquid: £1,167
16. New external taps for handwashing: £1,693
17. Floor signs: £424
18. Canopy coverings for outdoor queues: £820
19. Screens and dividers: £35,227
20. Building work to allow social distancing: £45,606
21. Work to provide external access and shutters to toilets: £5,770
22. Updating or replacing sinks and taps: £3,635
23. Refurbishment of walls and floors so easier to clean: £7,390
24. New food service electricity supply: £750
25. Changing stockrooms to office spaces: £2,650
26. New, larger space for pupil support in maths and reading: £3,750

TOTAL: £339,219

In Kiveton, south Yorkshire, the headteacher of Wales high school, Giuseppe Di’Iasio, spent his summer supervising building work to cover outside areas, in order to provide room for the seven year groups to separate into “bubbles”. “We spent our reserves to fund the building work, which has used up in advance all the capital fund money we will get over the next three years, so other improvements will be put on hold,” he says.

“It cost £6,000 to re-design the school and put in one-way systems and distancing, and we had to spend £19,000 on catering facilities so we could serve lunch at seven different venues,” he says. “We had to spend £2,000 on webcams for staff at home to facilitate remote learning, toilet refurbishment cost £3,500, and hygiene costs have been £13,000. We’re looking at spending at least a third of a million pounds out of our £10m budget, but as 80% of our spending is on staff costs, it is actually a sixth of the £2m other spend.”

Some schools are afraid to publish the full cost of Covid in case it affects their reputation. One school, a medium-sized secondary in the north-west of England that does not want to be identified, has recorded £339,000 Covid-related expenditure, including more than £10,000 on hand sanitisers and products this term, £3,381 on anti-bacterial sprays, and nearly £4,000 on disposable paper towels. Under the complicated rules, schools that can prove they cannot afford the extra expenditure or need to dig deep into their reserves are able to reclaim money for some pandemic-related costs, but only up to July 2020. The school’s headteacher says: “I have put in a claim to the Department for Education, but as yet have received diddly squat.”

Crofton school, an 11-16 secondary in Stubbington, Hants, has spent £10,000 on sanitiser products this term and will spend a further £8,000 a year on a sophisticated anti-bacterial spray product. But the real challenge facing schools as the virus spreads will be the cost of staff cover, says Jon Hickey, its operations director. “We have 170 members of full and part-time staff and however safe we keep the school – and we haven’t had any reported cases so far – staff can be told to stay home and isolate by a text message from track and trace, or they can’t come in because their child has been sent home to isolate,” he says.

A spokeswoman for the DfE says: “We continue to keep the costs of making a school Covid-secure under review.” However, she adds, schools are receiving “a £2.6bn boost in funding this year, as part of £14.4bn investment in total over the three-year period through to 2022-23, compared with 2019-20 – giving every school more money for every child”.

That is little consolation to Julia Maunder, head of Thomas Keble school in Eastcombe, Gloucestershire, whose budgets are balancing on a knife-edge. With three times the average number of children with special educational needs, the school has to subsidise their additional support from the core budget. This was one of the main factors that led, in January 2019, to Thomas Keble being served a financial “notice to improve” by the Education and Skills Funding Agency. By borrowing money from the agency, reluctantly asking parents for voluntary contributions to replace essential equipment, and making cuts in staffing, the school now has a balanced budget, but Maunder fears Covid costs will plunge it back into the red.

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“The government claims to be putting an extra £14.5bn into schools over three years, and we received an extra 3.2% funding in real terms or £203,000 for 2020/21. However, the money has just gone on catching up with the historical underfunding – £190,000 went towards the unfunded pay increases for teachers and support staff. A further £11,000 went on inflationary increases for non-staff expenditure, leaving just £2,000. However, we had to spend £95,000 on the needs of 19 students who arrived during 2020 but won’t attract funding until next year,” she says.

“All the measures we have taken to make the school secure and to help staff feel confident standing in a classroom of 30 children have taken a great deal of time and a great deal of effort, and I would do it again. But when I say I need £14,000 to pay for two marquees to keep the children dry, I really don’t feel I should be questioned about it or made to feel that I am being unreasonable,” she says.

“It’s a kick in the teeth for school leaders, trust boards and governors who are trying to do their bit for their communities, when the government appears to be telling us that everyone else is ahead for financial support, and we can manage with what we have. The truth is that we can’t, and children’s education will suffer.”

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