A number of UK schools have taken the decision to move to a shorter working week because of funding shortages – and nowhere more so, it would appear, than in Birmingham. More than 20 schools in the city now plan to save money by sending children home at Friday lunchtime. Emma Jane Kirby visited one to learn more about the financial pressures they face.
It’s even more of a squash than usual in the Bellfield Junior School hall this morning and small, scuffed knees knock against each other as the children sit cross-legged on the herringbone parquet floor. For the first time in their academic life, year two infants have been given special dispensation to join junior assembly.
Come the new term in September, a cramped place on this floor will be rightfully theirs. But for now the children are rather cowed by their privilege, and for the most part they sit staring open-mouthed at head teacher Nigel Attwood – with the occasional furtive glance at the rows behind, in the hope of getting a reassuring nod or smile from an older brother or sister.
Few of the newbies are familiar with today’s assembly song and mouth along hopefully, while the seasoned older children belt out the words that appear on the projector screen. Mr Attwood patiently explains the format of junior assembly to his fresh intake and the greeting – “Good Morning Everyone!” – they must learn to use as responsible year threes. He expects sportsmanship, he tells them and a spirit of caring and kindness in his school.
A little boy in the front row chews the cuff of his blue jumper, thoughtfully. There’s an awful lot to take in. And in September, there will be fewer school hours in which to get it right. Because next term, in the hope of saving £50,000 a year, Bellfield Junior School will shorten its working week to just four-and-a-half days, closing its doors immediately after lunch every Friday.
“We can beat this poverty,” sing the juniors confidently, “and make people smile.”
In his office, head teacher Nigel Attwood laughs ironically when I ask him if he feels he’s more of a finance manager these days than a teacher. His early career was in sales and purchasing, he explains, a profession he quickly got out of because he loathed it.
“Some days it feels I’m back in sales again,” he says. “I am constantly balancing budgets. But what we do in this school makes a difference to children and the community and I want to carry on helping to make that difference.”
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Northfield, the catchment area for Bellfield Junior School, is in a deprived part of Birmingham. Nearly 60% of the 286 pupils at the school are classed as being disadvantaged, receiving free school meals and “pupil premium” – a grant given by the government to a school for each disadvantaged child it educates. Over a third are also on the vulnerable register, while 27% have special educational needs and disabilities.
“We have children here with complex behavioural, emotional and educational needs. And that adds extra pressure on our pastoral services,” Mr Attwood says as he proudly shows me the children’s Achievement Board on a tour of the school. “We spend £100,000 a year on pastoral care alone.”
According to Mr Attwood, Bellfield Junior School received £1.3m from the local authority for its annual budget this year. About 76% to 78% of that sum is eaten up in staffing costs and wages, leaving about £300,000 for everything else.
“Everything else,” he emphasises. “And remember we are on absolute minimum staffing levels for the needs of our children – we really need more teaching assistants, but ….” He finishes his sentence by throwing his hands in the air in a gesture of helplessness.
From the leftover in the budget pot, Bellfield Junior School must fund everything from leaking roofs and building maintenance, utility bills, supply teachers, IT equipment and upkeep, stationery, sports equipment, subsidised educational visits and school trips, psychotherapists and educational psychologists. It’s good practice to keep 3% to 5% of the budget back in case of emergencies, such as a teacher going on long-term sick leave or a major water leak. Last year Bellfield managed to retain just 1% of its budget, meaning that an unexpected crisis could quickly push it into deficit.
Deputy head teacher Claire du Toit comes into the office after taking a difficult lesson. There were no working white board markers and since there’s no money for a new stationery order until the new term she’s been making do, writing on “scraps of paper”.
“It sounds like nothing,” she says with a rueful smile. “But these things can affect learning significantly.”
Claire du Toit has been at the school for the past 16 years and has noticed a number of changes. While the situation at Bellfield has always been challenging, she has seen poverty increasing in the area, pupil numbers rising and a reduction in teaching staff. She admits that when Nigel Attwood suggested they should go down to a four-and-a-half-day week she was initially horrified.
“I mean, how can you send children home and let them lose half a day’s learning?” she asks rhetorically. “Although I do think we’ve been clever and turned this negative into a positive.” The cleverness includes ensuring that children only lose 50 minutes of teaching time each week, and still get a total of 25 hours per week – one-and-a-half hours more than the Department for Education’s recommended minimum.
Bellfield took this decision because it feared the alternative would be to lose more staff. By law, the school has to give teachers planning, preparation and assessment time during the working week, but the cost of providing supply teachers to cover the periods when class teachers were absent was more than it could afford. So, from September, while the children will be sent home early on Fridays, all staff will stay on to do their lesson planning.
“It’s about continuity,” explains Claire du Toit. “Children will get the same teacher all week and that’s really good for children with emotional needs. But, yes, it’s horrifying because where does it end? That’s what you question. How much more can we cut back if we’re losing half a day’s education?”
The minute Nigel Attwood starts reading out his long “Must Do” list, it’s clear that Bellfield is going to have to cut back more. The 40-year-old boiler, shared with next door’s Infant School, is starting to leak and show signs of wear and tear; to replace it will cost £85,000. The kitchen has just had a £4,000 makeover. Some crumbling playground walls and slabs needed rebuilding this year for health and safety reasons. The small windows in some classrooms don’t close any more, which is a huge problem in winter, and most of the skylights need replacing, as does much of the lighting in classrooms. The school computers need upgrading and the disabled toilet needs refurbishing. There are also some shabby carpets around the building that no amount of fabric cleaner can improve.
“The biggest thing we don’t have money for is the maintenance of the building,” says Nigel Attwood. “In total, I reckon we need about £120,000. Which we don’t have.”
In the upstairs classroom, a small group of young children are collectively reading a story about some hungry goats, swaying in their chairs to the soothing rhythm of the text. There are some imaginative responses to the teacher’s question about how the goats might get to the greener fields on the other side of the broken bridge.
Bellfield’s business manager, Lynne Reeves, needs more than imagination to keep the school out of the red. She has to predict and estimate how the financial situation will change with a booming or declining birth rate. Essentially, more pupils mean more funding, but in three years’ time the “bulge” in pupil numbers they’re currently experiencing will drop off, leaving the school with even more of a shortfall.
“I’m trying to think ahead to stay ahead, to stay in the black,” she complains. “But every bit of funding the local authority pulls is more and more pressure on us. Yes, we do things like applying for National Lottery funding but everyone else is doing that too.”
Services that used to be provided by the local authority, such as mental health support, children’s centres, and long-term sickness and maternity pay, now have to be funded from the school budget, she says.
“And that’s just not possible sometimes. For the sort of area we’re in, I feel we just don’t get enough support. We just can’t provide all these extra services. It’s a shame schools are coming to this.”
The school’s walls are covered in bright posters and paintings by the children, and a talented teacher has painted classroom doors with characters from Harry Potter and fairy tales. The pupil chatter from inside the classrooms is engaged and excited.
“We try to make it joyful here!” laughs Nigel Attwood, as we head towards the staff room for a coffee. “We really try!”
But as we walk he tells me the school sometimes has to look after the children’s families, as well as the children themselves, and this can also cost money.
“Parents come to us now with housing problems, debt problems, mental health problems – all of this now lands at our door. And even bereavement charities or children’s charities have six-to-12-month waiting lists. Well, sorry but a child or family in crisis can’t wait that long, so it comes down to us to step in.”
Sometimes, for example, the school provides a counsellor to support the family.
The government insists that school funding is at record levels. Head teacher Nigel Attwood agrees this is correct in terms of how many pounds are in the budget, but inflation, increased wages and pension contributions mean there’s little difference to per-pupil funding – a 0.7% increase this year for Birmingham schools.
Then he adds: “Our gas and electricity bill has gone up 30% this year.” He smiles and leaves me to do the maths.
At break time, there’s a definite “nearly-the-summer-holidays-feel” in the playground as the children run whooping and pirouetting across the concrete, whirring their arms and yelling their friends’ names. A few of the older children come to introduce themselves; a dark- haired little girl tells me I’m very welcome to join her jumping game so long as I can hold her coat.
The children themselves will undoubtedly be delighted to have more playtime from next term. Perhaps because Bellfield has been careful to offer childcare on Friday afternoons until the usual 3.25pm home time, the school has only received nine complaints and queries from parents.
“When Mr Attwood first talked about this, I was gutted for them,” sighs parent Sarah Pitchford, who has two sons at the school. “This is a brilliant school. They love their pupils and the atmosphere here is really caring. I feel so angry the government has put them in this position.”
In the hall at lunchtime there are high spirits as year six put on a special disco and the children show off their moves to the Village People’s YMCA. Year six, who will be going to secondary school in September, have traditionally been treated to a subsidised outing before they leave – this term it has fallen to the children themselves to raise much of the money they need. They’re charging 20p to dance.
It’s the first time all day I’ve seen the perpetually upbeat Mr Attwood look downcast.
“School trips are expensive,” he says wearily. “We have to pick our educational trips very carefully.”
He reminds me of the display board I’d been admiring in the corridor, where pupils had written enthusiastically about last term’s trip to the theatre.
“We now have to ask parents to subsidise more and more, and we can’t go unless we get 75% of the costs in voluntary contributions. Unfortunately, we have had to cancel two trips in the last two years because we didn’t get the funding and couldn’t afford to go.”
“It’s gut-wrenching. But we can’t afford it. We really can’t.”
In the school hall, the children dance on, oblivious.
Through the serving hatch in the adjoining dining room, the dinner ladies watch and applaud.
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