School finances in crisis, head warns

A DOWNEND head teacher says the area’s schools are “hanging on by a thread” as their finances hit a crisis point.

Pippa Osborne, who is the head of Christ Church Junior School and chairs the South Gloucestershire Schools Forum, said heads “can’t focus on providing the best possible education for our pupils or provide good working conditions for staff because we are constantly worried about money”.

And the council says children are having to wear coats during lessons at some schools, which cannot afford to turn the heating up in winter.

School leaders have teamed up with the council to launch a campaign demanding more money from Whitehall to give youngsters the best start in life.

They say the financial situation is so bad because the district is the worst-funded of all 151 education authorities in the country.

Drastic cuts they say are being made, in both council-maintained and academy schools, include recruiting apprentices instead of fully-qualified teaching assistants, cancelling school trips and clubs, breaching legal class size limits and sharing staff across schools. 

Mrs Osborne said: “Schools across South Gloucestershire are having to cut back on things that teachers, and most parents, would think could be taken for granted if our schools were properly funded.

“Schools are doing incredibly well to appear on the surface to be ok, but too many of my colleagues tell me that they are hanging on by a thread.

“The things we are having to do to balance budgets will shock and certainly disappoint some parents, but they are all too familiar in our schools.

“We are doing the best we can, but we know it’s not the best that’s possible because there just isn’t the funding from Government.”

Forum vice-chair Dave Baker, who is the chief executive of Olympus Academy Trust, said: “The picture across South Gloucestershire is the same, whether schools are funded via the council or directly from Government as academies are.

“There simply isn’t enough money for us to do our jobs properly.”

Council co-leader and cabinet member for schools Ian Boulton said: “If South Gloucestershire was funded at the average for similar council areas, we would get an extra £12.3 million a year, and if we were funded at the England average that would be an extra £16.9m.

“We are not asking for a share of some other areas’ schools funding, we are asking for our kids and our schools in South Gloucestershire to be given the money to do the job.

“It’s no more than our children deserve.

“Our headteachers and school staff work incredibly hard and achieve incredible things, but they are being forced to do it with one hand tied behind their backs.”

A council spokesperson said some schools had stopped having lunch supervisors and were using remaining teaching assistants for break duties to save money, as well cutting activities such as singing, art and sport and behaviour and inclusion support for children who need it.

Cllr Boulton, who represents Staple Hill & Mangotsfield, added: “Right now, all children in school in South Gloucestershire are at a disadvantage because this Government refuses to fund what education costs.

“We are seeing a significant increase in schools at financial risk because despite everything they are doing to balance the books, they are still struggling to keep their heads above water.

“This is not a question of the competence of school leaders – they are doing the very best that they can and we are supporting them in that – but they are being asked to do the impossible.”

Council-maintained schools receive their money from Government via the council while academies get theirs directly from the Department for Education.

But in South Gloucestershire this funding is the lowest per pupil in the country.

For 2023/24, there were 37,748 school pupils in South Gloucestershire. The total Schools Block Funding per pupil was just £5,233.

A council spokesperson said clubs and activities such as singing, art and sport were being cut, while some schools had stopped having lunch supervisors and used the teaching assistants who remained for those duties.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “School funding is rising by over £3.9 billion this year compared to 2022/23.

“Nationally, school funding will reach the highest level in history, in real terms per pupil, by 2024/25.

“This includes an extra £4m for mainstream schools in South Gloucestershire for 2024/25, an increase of 2% per pupil compared to 2023/24, and an increase of 13.5% per pupil compared to 2021/22.

“This takes the total funding to £206.5m.”

By Adam Postans, Local Democracy Reporting Service