School funding crisis: Horsham head speaks out

Alex Bird, headteacher, St Mary's Primary School, Horsham SUS-190803-161406001
Alex Bird, headteacher, St Mary's Primary School, Horsham SUS-190803-161406001

A Horsham headteacher spoke out today about how Government funding cuts have affected his school.

Alex Bird, head of St Mary’s CE Primary School, Horsham, spoke out following letters which went out earlier today to every parent of schoolchildren in the county.

He described how he has had to have ‘dishonourable conversations’ with staff over pay cuts and had to rely on ‘incredibly hard working teachers working ‘until silly o’clock.’

Parents have also rallied, he said, to help buy books, pay for IT upgrades and fund stationery, glue sticks, string, sellotape, whiteboards - and more.

He said:”I started in my post a year and a half ago. Inheriting a school that was struggling in many ways, especially on the academic results front.

“During my first month in post I had to let my team know that not only was I asking a great deal of them in terms of changing working practices and managing this change, but that we were facing financial concerns too (which can only significantly add to stress levels).

“Fortunately, I had support staff who were looking for a change and were happy to move to pastures new or take a cut in hours.

“Obviously the appointment of a new head tends to be the catalyst for changes in teachers within a school too. In appointing new teachers to my team I have had to have what I consider to be a dishonourable conversation with each of them. Explaining that although you are currently at this point on the teachers’ pay scale (points often achieved through blood, sweat and tears) I can only afford to appoint you at a lower grade.

“Thankfully, those teachers have been willing to make such sacrifices to be part of our school community. And boy do they work sacrificially, I am regularly turfing them, and teaching assistants working way beyond their paid hours, out of school at ‘silly o’clock’ when my wife has started chasing me to see if I’m still alive!

“The governors and parent body have rallied round my incredibly hard working staff, doing whatever they can to help our school be the best it can.

“I have been blessed with a plethora of volunteers (including fully qualified teachers coming in to take booster groups for no reward at all), parent working parties doing the school up at weekends and my governors rolling their sleeves up, not only to offer professional challenge to me, but getting into school to help in any ways that they can think of or are asked to do as well.

“The HSA (our school’s Parent Teacher Association) has been very active in staging wonderful events to raise much needed funds to help with updating IT around the school (computers and CleverTouch Screens), as well as a multitude of books.

“The events they put on are a wonderful blessing to our community, but their funding is desperately needed too: events have included traditional discos, quizzes and fayres, but also shopping evenings, ‘An audience with...’ events and barn dancing.

“Parents are also asked for annual contributions to help fund the school and many have been kind enough to give extras when they can via our ParentPay system.

“Beyond this, we also have an Amazon Wishlist for parents to purchase individual items to help keep the school running as efficiently as possible.

“Since its launch we have had stationery items including glue sticks, string, sellotape, maths resources, a bookcase, whiteboards, balance bikes and nativity costumes.

“Frustratingly, I have discovered that there is no funding for medical needs of children until we have been through a very long and laborious process to ‘prove need’ which takes terms’ worth of time.

“I have had a poor chap with Type 1 Diabetes arrive in our Early Years, who requires constant monitoring. So, to look after him I have had to take a teaching assistant from working with two classes of my older children (sixty children missing out on high quality support they would otherwise have had).

“We currently have four children on EHCPs (education, health and care plans) in the school and are in the process of collating evidence to apply for four more. I have to provide the support these children need while applying for the EHCP funding (and it doesn’t get back dated once awarded).

“If we are lucky enough to get an EHCP for these high needs children we receive £3,232 annually (I am told this quantity hasn’t changed in years due to the very poor high needs funding block).

“While it costs the school approximately £14,500 to employ someone to look after each of these high needs children, I then have twenty children on my SEND (special educational needs and disability) register with other needs that don’t qualify for an EHCP. So you can see that my, officially named, ‘notional SEN budget’ doesn’t come close to meeting needs.

“School funding is an interesting question: subject to so many political opinions and swings it is rather painful. Hence the WorthLess? Campaign has deliberately chosen to endeavour to show no political or party bias.

“Currently, the Government has introduced what it considers to be a Fair Funding Formula, but this seems far from fair with certain areas benefiting far more than others.

“We have Pupil Premium Funding for those pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, but those of us with fewer Pupil Premium pupils find it very much harder to access any further meaningful grants as this indicator is also used by so many charities too.

“The high needs block is desperately short of funds for our most vulnerable children: which then pitches headteachers arguing with local authorities as to whose need is greatest too!

“I am delighted to say that we have recently had both our Ofsted and SIAMS (Statutory Inspection of Anglican and Methodist Schools) inspections, the school being judged overall as good and outstanding respectively.

“They have obviously given me targets for improvement, but sadly my very first response has been to agree to cutting an extra two days’ worth of support staff time from our children.

“The future of our country is not whether we are in or out of Europe, it is being educated in the classrooms around our country and it is not being fairly or adequately funded.

“I really pray that the powers that be could stop arguing among themselves in parliament (oblivious to the plight of the common people) and actually agree on what is best for those people in our care and start to focus on running our country effectively.

“Anyway, that is the story of how funding has been affecting my school. We have been blessed as West Sussex County Council has helped to protect us from the full impact of the funding formula since my arrival, but we will feel the full effect in the not too distant future.

“This has given us time to cut, cut, cut and avoid going into deficit and to consider any changes that we can make that will save money while have as little negative impact on our children as possible - thanks to the support of the whole school community and answers to a very great many prayers!”