Rebels with a cause

The school funding crisis has hit some areas particularly hard. In Barnet, heads are refusing point blank to accept new budgets and are on a collision course with the Prime Minister. Nicholas Pyke reports from the front line
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The Independent Online

The London Borough of Barnet is scarcely a hotbed of radical dissent. Embracing Hendon, Cockfosters and Finchley - Mrs Thatcher's old constituency - it is a famously suburban territory on the northern fringe of London, a world of cherry trees and 1930s semis, where the 4x4s clog up the morning traffic.

Yet it is here in Barnet that the schools have found themselves at the leading edge of resistance thanks to a national funding crisis, which still shows no sign of easing. Eleven of the borough's schools have been so badly hit they have decided to confront the Government head-on. They are refusing to recognise the new, skeletal budgets they were given three months ago and have written to Tony Blair and the Education Secretary, Charles Clarke, demanding a meeting. Accepting next year's budget, they say, means getting rid of so many staff that either classes would swell to 60 pupils a time, or the schools would operate for only two days a week. So they won't.

Instead, they are determined to continue spending at the same level as before, which means that unless ministers come up with the missing cash, eight secondaries and three primaries will run out of money by January.

The unlikely Barnet rebels include Teresa Tunnadine, head of the popular Compton School, who is still more than £200,000 short of a viable budget, even after making staff cuts. She would have to fire more than two dozen teachers at Christmas to make the figures balance. Ten minutes up the road at East Barnet School Nick Christou is equally determined to resist. "Our school is so good, no one is going to destroy it while I am head teacher," he told a recent gathering of all 1,200 pupils. Mr Christou is chair of the Barnet Secondary Heads Forum, and its spokesman. His school remains £250,000 short, despite frantic cost cutting - a deficit which would have meant getting rid of 10 staff by September, or twice that number by the new year.

Schools across the country are still wrestling with a budget crisis so huge no one can work out its true size or pin down quite how it came about. Increases in teachers' pay and in national insurance and pension contributions have been significant factors. At the same time there has been a change in the official funding formula which, in broad terms, moved money from southern to northern authorities. Then there was the decision to abolish a number of special pots of money formerly available to schools through the Standards Fund. Although they have been theoretically incorporated into the main budget, there is some suspicion this has been done at the behest of a Treasury keen to make savings.

In the early days of the crisis, the Government suggested that local education authorities in England had failed to pass on half a billion pounds of education money to schools. This is no longer the official line, with ministers now accepting there are problems - although they are yet to take the blame. The Prime Minister recently told the House of Commons that budget problems would lead to only 250 redundancies. Head teachers say the true scale of staff losses will be many times higher than that.

Southern authorities, particularly those in London, have suffered the worst. Overall, Barnet schools are missing £8m, with some schools up to £500,000 short. The council feels it has nothing to hide and has already opened its books to the heads who, in return, have pronounced themselves happy that the borough has passed on all the money it can. The damage goes beyond the 11 Barnet schools setting deficit budgets. Most have been affected, but some had substantial financial reserves to call on and are able to cope this year, just. Queen Elizabeth's grammar school for girls, for example, one of the top performing schools in the country, is £200,000 short. It will not fill four vacant teaching posts and has been reduced to asking the parents to contribute £60,000 for books and equipment.

Head teachers' leaders have warned that the national problem is primed to become a major vote loser, particularly in an area like Barnet where the state schools are popular, despite powerful competition from the private sector. It boasts some extremely successful comprehensives. The 11 protesting schools include Copthall, where 71 per cent of the pupils get 5 A* to C and Ashmole, where last year's figure was 69 per cent. At East Barnet, 58 per cent of the pupils got five top grades; at Compton it was 57 per cent.

"I have got more and more angry as time goes on," says Nick Christou at East Barnet. "I can't believe they have done this knowingly. When Charles Clarke was first challenged, two months ago, he said there was no issue. Then he said the LEAs were at fault. Now he's saying there's a problem, but 'we're working with the LEAs'. It just isn't good enough.

"If they allow this level of damage to actually take place it would be scandalous. They can't be told any more times about the real situation in Barnet. They should be ashamed of themselves, really. We're not talking about schools that are badly managed. Some of the comprehensives in Barnet that do well are outstanding."

His own school is certainly prospering in the view of the inspectors.

"East Barnet School is a very good school," said Ofsted in a report published the day before Mr Christou got his budget news. "It is an exciting comprehensive school where learning is a delight and all members of the school community feel valued. The head teacher successfully inspires staff and students alike to achieve their very best. The school provides good value for money."

East Barnet has 560 applications a year for 200 places and a catchment area so tight you cover it in the 10-minute walk from Cockfosters underground station to the school gate. Compton School is more popular still, with 600 applications every year for 150 places. Compton is one of the Government's beacon schools and is currently under consideration as a "leading-edge school" (the new generation of beacon schools). It was named as an outstanding school in this year's Chief Inspector's report.

Despite Barnet's reputation for suburban comfort, neither school is unduly privileged. The borough is home not only to suburban semis but to giant housing estates built to accommodate inner London overspill. East Barnet's intake is classically comprehensive. Compton's pupils are achieving below average when they arrive, yet score well above the national average on leaving. The two heads have just been invited to a special government conference for the leaders of top performing secondary schools which "have added value well above what could have been expected given their students' background". They will have plenty to say when they attend.

One "solution" proposed by ministers is that schools raid their capital budgets to help them get through this year's difficulties. At Compton, this is a non-starter because all its buildings money has been pre-allocated to a £5m expansion plan. Over at East Barnet the suggestion is even more ludicrous. The school already has to place buckets underneath leaking roofs while the scuffed, damp-ridden building can barely cope with the volume of pupils passing through its 1940s corridors.

Mrs Tunnadine at Compton is still £204,000 adrift despite axing £40,000 from the books and equipment budget, cancelling £10,000-worth of staff training, cutting out-of-hours vocational courses, and deciding not to fill the vacant posts of three learning support assistants and a special needs teacher. Overall, she reckons to be £325,000 down on where she was last year.

Redundancies, she says, are not just undesirable, they are impossible without jeopardising the safety of the pupils. "Staff are teaching at their limit already. I cannot ask them to teach any more lessons. Class sizes in practical lessons are already on the high side of safe. To make a difference you have to add another five children onto each class. But we don't have the equipment and physically the classrooms wouldn't take them. There's no more room.

"The shock came when we worked out what the increase was to the cost of employing staff. Our total staffing budget costs have increased by 14 per cent. Yet my overall budget has increased by only 3.8 per cent.

"I believe that if the Government felt that Barnet hadn't passed all the money to schools it would have stepped in. One assumes therefore that it's the fault of the Government. I don't think they have done their homework. It's as if someone has left a nought off," she says. "There's also a moral issue. My duty towards pupils in the school is to provide the full range of the national curriculum for them. Without the staff I would have to lose, I couldn't do that. It's not a high-risk strategy because the other option is worse. Should I gather the children into a hall and educate 60 at a time? That wouldn't be a 21st-century education. It would be a Victorian education."

For a head teacher in deep financial trouble, she is remains surprisingly calm. This is because the grotesque scale of the cuts proposed means that no one seriously believes they can or will take place.

"We think that all the hard work we're putting into the school is potentially in jeopardy," she says. "But we're also optimistic that it must have been a mistake and that no one would want to ruin highly successful schools - this or any other. Once the scale of the problem is recognised, they must feel duty bound to sort it out."