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School cuts under the microscope: A visit to Calderdale

MIXENDEN is a council estate on the outskirts of Halifax in West Yorkshire.

Its picturesque Pennine setting belies the poverty and deprivation its people suffer thanks to 14 years of Tory and Lib Dem austerity, and nowhere more so than in Ash Green primary school which serves its children.

Mungo Sheppard is the school’s head teacher.

He’s been a teacher for 22 years, and head for 10. He is an active member of his union, the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), and chaired his local NAHT branch for five years.

Cuts have left his school badly understaffed, to the extent that he and other head teachers in the region have been forced to multi-task, taking on the jobs of caretakers, gardeners, playground supervisers and kitchen hands. Many teachers are bringing food into school to feed pupils who have had no breakfast.

“I chaired the association when it oversaw a period of massive change in terms of local government budgets shrinking, services being stopped that schools relied on,” he told the Morning Star.

A lot of kids at his school have problems, and need support such as educational psychology.

“The local authority used to provide educational psychological behaviour support, education services, myriad services,” he said.

“We have seen over the last few years through cuts to local authority budgets these services stripped away completely. We can get them but we have to pay.

“Safeguarding, for example, key training for staff around child protection issues.

“Now schools have to pay year on year. That is just a microcosm. You have a situation where those services no longer exist.

“That is the context schools are having to work in when schools themselves face budget cuts. These are cold, hard facts.

“We have less money per pupil than we had before. And everything we have to pay for is more expensive – services we used to be able to take up from the local authority and that we get now have to be paid for.

“But the big thing is schools are having extra costs – pensions contributions, national insurance contributions, laudable rises for the salaries of the lowest-paid staff.

“The Education Department says that schools are enjoying record levels of funding. It is like saying this year you have £50 for your weekly shop, last year it was £49. But at the same time we are having to pay for more services.

“Bought-in services come from the private sector, or consultants who have been previously employed by the local authority.

“The area I work in has the most vulnerable conditions for suffering. Services they need are being scaled back and schools face the quandary of whether they can afford the services.

“Unfortunately what I am hearing from more and more of my colleagues is that they are having to make decisions based on finances, not the needs of pupils.

“Staffing is the biggest item. Now schools are not replacing support staff, they are changing roles, making redundancies.

“A head teacher colleague at one school – he teaches five classes one afternoon a week to give teachers time they need for planning, so that he doesn’t have to pay supply costs.

“We are not moaning about it because it is what we do, but school leaders are having to take second jobs elsewhere. Within their own schools, heads are having increasingly to amalgamate roles and take on jobs themselves, maybe increasingly teaching or doing work over lunchtime supervising. Heads will work through that time. It is little things like that.

“So you have local authority budgets slashed, which is passed on to schools as services are slashed.”

Sue McMahon, former full-time divisional organiser with the National Union of Teachers, now leads the Calderdale Against School Cuts campaign (CASC).

“Calderdale schools have seen a cut in government funding of £39.4 million since 2015,” she said.

“These cuts have seen reductions in staffing, essential maintenance axed, subjects lost, resources decimated and staff covering multitudes of extra tasks on top of their daily duties, all of which have a knock-on effect on pupils’ education at a time when pupil numbers are increasing.

“When head teachers can’t afford to replace staff due to funding cuts, they are literally rolling up their sleeves and taking on the additional tasks themselves. 

“I have spoken to heads who are doing just that. Washing pots and pans in the school kitchen, repairing leaking skylights, power washing outside play areas so children don’t slip, taking on the additional responsibilities of caretaker, covering for absent teaching and support staff.

“In Calderdale, if you want advice about a child from an Education Psychologist, you are on a waiting list to see somebody from Manchester as Calderdale no longer has any. 

“What chance has a child got when so many things are stacked against them. Coming to school hungry because there is no food at home is a reflection of austerity and the failure of universal credit. With so many services being cut, schools have had to become the fourth emergency service.”

Mungo Sheppard says: “There is less money per pupil over the last five years.

“To keep the wolf from the door schools are not replacing staff. It is something that I have never seen before, and it does not make sense. When a member of staff leaves the question is, can we manage without replacing them and how do we divi out the work?

“The reality is that people in schools are having to work harder, and longer hours, and you see the effects of that in not being able to recruit, and people staying a short time in the profession. They are worn down and leave.

“When I was NAHT chairman we shared stories. I had one say ‘I have lost 10 members of staff and have not replaced them. But I am still looking at a massive deficit.’”

Problems facing children at his school and their parents are compounded by other cuts.

“There are pockets of real deprivation and it is part of a much wider picture, when you look at cuts to other services affecting people’s lives – look at cuts to emergency services.

“When you are working particularly with vulnerable children and you cannot call on services that were there before and there are costs, you are doing more for less and less – and that is what is happening in the NHS, and the police. They will be feeling this too.

“Educational psychology has gone from being free and plentiful from a local authority to an outside firm that you have to pay whatever the premium rate is.

“The physical effect on the children you are starting to see – exclusions - is at a record high. Part of that is to do with school funding and with the services that are not there. You can identify problems, but you cannot get anyone to see the children.

“They are not getting the support they were getting. It is going to have an effect on a child’s behaviour.

“We are seeing more children excluded than ever before, and we are seeing emotional and mental health problems we have not seen before. But that is in the context of society and austerity, families have other problems as well.  Youth offending teams – that is no longer there. That is affecting adults as well as young people.”

He believes that at last the message about the problems schools like his face are beginning to get across to the public.

“I do feel the public is becoming more aware about funding,” he said. “There has been real positive media. I do feel there are politicians who are now prepared to take this and run with it.

“I do feel if we can get over this one item agenda about Brexit and people start looking at school funding it might get us more of an airing. All we are asking for is for our schools to be funded. Not sloshing with money, not moaning because we have to work harder. It is just that schools do not have enough money to get the best outcomes for children.”

Last week Sue McMahon of CASC organised hustings on the issue of education cuts in the Calder Valley parliamentary constituency.

The seat has been held by Tory Craig Whittaker since 2010. In 2017 Whittaker had a majority of 709 votes. Today Labour candidate John Fenton-Glynn is front-runner to beat him.

Here’s a taste of Whittaker’s character. In January 2016, the Labour Party unsuccessfully proposed an amendment in Parliament that would have required private landlords to make their homes “fit for human habitation.” Whittaker was one of 72 Conservative MPs who voted against the amendment. According to Parliament's register of interests, he has an income from renting out property.

At the education hustings the Labour, Lib Dem and Liberal candidates turned up to be questioned by students and parents. Whittaker didn’t turn up.

Sue McMahon says: “With BBC TV and other media covering the hustings, Liberal Democrat Javid Bashir, Labour’s Josh Fenton-Glynn and the Liberal candidate Richard Phillips answered questions from a packed house. Young people preparing to vote for the first time, as well as more seasoned voters were keen to hear the candidates’ views on a number of topics that included education funding, the arts and pupil mental health.

“Craig Whittaker chose not to attend. He also declined to be interviewed by the BBC. Members of the audience expressed displeasure over his refusal to be scrutinised on his record and his party’s policies on education.”

The Tories’ answer to the spiral of increasing problems facing Britain’s state schools is to order more intensive inspections by education regulator Ofsted – the last thing teachers want.

Yet the Tories have proved incapable of reaching their own targets for teacher recruitment.

Labour’s shadow education secretary Angela Rayner says: “It’s clear that you can’t trust the Conservatives on schools and education.

“They have no plan to deal with the crisis they have created in teacher recruitment and retention and their spending pledge amounts to a 13 year real-terms freeze, meaning four in five state schools in England will be financially worse off next year.

“A Labour government will take action to address the teacher recruitment and retention crisis. We’ll significantly increase investment in our schools, tackle the causes of high workload and provide ring-fenced funding to give teachers the pay rise they deserve.”

The situation at Ash Green primary school in Mixenden is being repeated at schools across the country.

Mungo Sheppard is one of a dedicated band of head teachers increasingly struggling to keep the state education system functioning.

He’s currently hobbling to school on crutches with one lower leg encased in a plaster cast because of a damaged tendon. He should be at home resting. But if he’s not there, who will do the job?

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