The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) general secretary Geoff Barton has accused the DfE of having a “lack of understanding” of schools’ financial pressures, after the department said it was “unacceptable” for schools to reduce their weeks.
Schools Week reports that the DfE made this claim after Fulbourn Primary School in Cambridgeshire announced it would be reducing its week in order to make “significant savings in a tough financial climate.”
The DfE’s response suggests that ministers are becoming stricter on schools looking to reduce their hours.
Schools Week analysis conducted in March revealed that at least 26 schools are considering, or have already, altered their timetables to as a cost-saving measure. Most of these schools are situated in Birmingham.
At the time, the DfE said that changes to the school day must be “reasonable” and parents must be “adequately consulted.” But now the body has changed its tone; last week, it said this:
“The structure of the school day should never be the cause of inconvenience to parents and carers, and it is unacceptable for schools to shorten their school week when it is not a direct action to support and enhance their pupils’ education.”
A DfE spokesperson was asked whether or not the department would take action against schools closing their doors early, but they refused to comment.
National Education Union assistant general secretary, Andrew Morris, said it is “unacceptable” that DfE funding cuts are making headteachers feel as if there is no other solution but to reduce school hours.
From September, Fulbourn Primary will shut at 1.30pm on Wednesdays rather than 3.30pm. This will mean that children are in school for 32.5 hours rather than 34.5.
The school explained in a letter to parents that it had chosen Wednesday to reduce hours because all teachers and the majority of other staff work that day – “and as a result, early closure [...] creates the greatest savings for the school.”
It’s expected staff will use Wednesday afternoons for lesson planning, preparation and assessment (PPA). The school will therefore cut costs because it won’t have to pay support staff to cover teacher PPA time on other days.
It will work out that children will only have a 45-minute reduction in teaching each week because the school will be regaining an hour by removing afternoon play. On-site childcare will be offered to parents who need it, but at a cost.
The letter explained how the school needs to make £60,000 additional savings next year. This comparatively low: many other schools are having to find several hundreds of thousands of pounds. The government says that staffing usually accounts for 75%-80% of a mainstream school’s expenditure; Fulbourn claims it spends 85% on staffing, which is “considered high” under government guidance.
Barton said that schools being forced to close early is an “unsustainable situation” and that the DfE’s response shows “a lack of understanding about the pressures under which schools are operating.”
The government said schools funding in Cambridgeshire has risen 3.5% per pupil compared to 2017-18. Secondary schools particularly will feel the pinch as another 20% bubble of students reach them by 2026.
Meanwhile, the Institute for Fiscal Studies discovered that total school spending per pupil has dropped by 8% in real terms since 2010.