In the playground of St Matthew’s primary school in Cambridge, none of the children laughing and playing has any idea that, upstairs in his office, their friendly headmaster, Tony Davies, is enraged.
Last week he learned that his school’s budget will be cut by £60,000 next year – and he knows that, no matter what steps he takes to try to save costs, the education of the children at his large, inner-city state school is going to suffer.
“I’m furious about the impact that these budget cuts are going to have on the children we teach,” he said. “It’s going to affect all children, but particularly children who are vulnerable, who find it difficult to learn – because, inevitably, it is their support that becomes one of the first things to go, when you’re at the stage where you’re making cuts into children’s actual education.
“We have made all the efficiency cuts we can already. So, if we’re making cuts next year, we’re making cuts into our core services and our core offer of education – and speaking to other headteachers I know we’re far from unique. The situation St Matthew’s is in is typical of schools across the country.”
Along with more than 7,000 headteachers who are part of the campaign group WorthLess?, he sent a letter home to parents at his school last week, warning about the “extremely challenging” shortfall in funding that schools are facing and urging them to lobby local MPs and the Department for Education (DfE) .
It emerged last week that the education secretary, Damian Hinds, had twice refused to meet WorthLess?, which represents the united voice of headteachers from 64 local authorities. The diaries of education ministers “need to be prioritised according to ministerial, parliamentary and constituency business,” headteachers were told.
A DfE spokesperson said the education secretary had secured an extra £400m of capital funding for schools from the Treasury over the past year. “School funding in England is at its highest ever level,” she added, and will rise from almost £41bn in 2017-18 to £43.5bn by 2019-20.
That will not placate teachers such as Davies, it may enrage him further. “The government has not accepted responsibility for the cuts. That also makes me furious,” he said.
The gentle, softly spoken 49-year-old has been driven to hurling his radio at the wall, after waking up in the morning and hearing ministers talking about education funding. “They’re not even honest in the statements that they make. They keep saying there’s more money in education than ever before. But they know they’re being disingenuous. Their spending has not even vaguely kept pace with inflation.”
WorthLess? has calculated that since 2010 school budgets have been reduced in real terms by 8%. Davies, whose school was rated outstanding by Ofsted in its most recent report, is deeply concerned about how the cuts he will have to make will affect staff morale, workloads and retention. “I’ve been a teacher for 25 years and a headteacher for 15 years – this is the worst it’s ever been.”
Last week the Labour MP Jess Phillips tweeted that her son’s school was planning to start closing at 1pm on Fridays to save money. “I think I’ll leave him on steps of Downing Street,” she wrote. About 25 to 30 schools across the country have announced similar measures since 2017, including Vale View primary school in Greater Manchester.
Sending his pupils home at lunchtime is a strategy that Davies, too, has been forced to consider to save money. “It’s something that’s crossed our mind. I know there are schools in Cambridge that do it.” He sees it as an absolute last resort.
“I know that if we did that, it would have a real impact on working parents. We don’t want to go down that line – and we’re not going to do so next year – but there comes a point where you start going: if I haven’t got the money, what else can I do? I’ve got no other option.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the school leaders’ union NAHT, said the idea that schools are considering a four-and-a-half day week ought to be ringing alarm bells with the government. “School budgets are at absolute breaking point,” he said. “School leaders have made all the obvious savings – now they are faced with having to make major changes to the way they provide education.”
Davies criticised the government’s “astonishingly myopic vision for the future of this country. People talk about knife crime. That is just a symptom of a far deeper, wider malaise, which is that we are draining the potential and the hope of young people by cutting their services, labelling their schools as failing and labelling them, as individuals, as failures.
“It has a cumulative, devastating impact, and what else can you expect but for young people to feel angry, disaffected and isolated?”