Another year, another crisis

Head teachers meeting tomorrow will tell ministers that schools are broke again, writes Sarah Cassidy
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The Government would like to think that the budget deficits and teacher redundancies that plagued schools last year are over and that, although money may be tight, there will be no repeat of the massive cash shortages that caused normally mild-mannered heads to erupt in fury.

But one of the heads who first raised the alarm last year will tell David Miliband tomorrow that some schools are now suffering even more severe cash problems. Anne Welsh, head teacher of George Stephenson School in North Tyneside, and president of the Secondary Heads Association (SHA), is using her presidential speech at the annual conference in Harrogate to say that many schools face six-figure deficits. This year's crisis is all the more serious because schools' have already been cut to the bone as a result last year's problems, she says.

Although it is too early to see the full picture across the UK, schools in traditionally under-funded areas have been particularly savagely hit by problems this year, according to Welsh. "People are very, very worried," she says. Thirty nine schools in North Tyneside - just across the river from Mr Miliband's constituency of South Tyneside - face massive deficits this year.

"It is so depressing, she says. "I am sure that more money is going into education overall but it is just not getting to us in schools." Her school, which has 1,100 pupils in a deprived area of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, is again £100,000 in the red even after allowing for three teaching posts to be lost.

Three teachers - of French, design and ICT - are leaving. Welsh would love to replace them but cannot afford to do so. "It will mean larger classes but there is nothing else we can do."

Worse than this, the only way to balance her budget would be to make four other teachers redundant. But further redundancies are not an option, she says, because they would force the school to close. "If we got rid of four teachers, we would not be able to run the curriculum," she says.

Gill Alexander, North Tyneside's director of education, is also attending the confrence to alert Mr Miliband to the severity of her authority's problems and to urge him to review the way LEAs are funded. The problem is the wide variation in funding per pupil, she says. This year Tower Hamlets if the best funded area with £4,764 per pupil compared to £2,916.

Last year furious heads used SHA's conference to alert ministers to the crisis. Welsh's school faced a £100,000 deficit and the prospect of making five teachers redundant. Nationally, the crisis led to thousands of teachers losing their jobs and forced many schools to use their repair budgets to plug the funding gap. The problems were caused by a new funding system coming in at the same time as schools faced spiralling costs from teachers' pay rises, and employers' pension and national insurance contributions.

Although Welsh plugged most of last year's deficit with more than £80,000 from her buildings fund, pupils at George Stephenson School are now without sports facilities because money earmarked for a new all-weather sports pitch was used to pay teachers' salaries. The school had been using a local leisure centre because it has no facilities of its own, but the centre was shut down and the building condemned so pupils now must be bussed across Newcastle for games lessons.

"The Government would like to think that all last year's problems have been solved," she says. "But because I had to use money from our capital budget our pupils have lost out and continue to suffer. I think that ministers forget that."

The deficit could jeopardise plans to cut teachers' workload by employing more support staff. Welsh fears that it will deter young teachers from aspiring to become heads because they see the terrible problems that school leaders face. "It's hard to see how I can meet the contractual requirements to cut teachers' workloads."

Welsh may be very anxious but John Dunford, the SHA's general secretary, does not think that the mood at this year's conference will be as angry as in 2003. Nevertheless he is concerned that some schools still face serious deficits. "We certainly hope that the problems will not be as widespread," he says.