'˜There's only so far you can push staff before they reach breaking point'
School staff from all over West Sussex have opened up about the damage being caused by the ongoing financial crisis.
The results of a survey conducted by Unison made for grim reading, with issues revealed including GCSE classes being taught by unqualified support staff, stress levels soaring, and teachers openly discussing leaving the profession.
More than 500 people from primary, secondary and special schools, responded to the survey, of which the majority were support staff, such as teaching assistants.
Others were headteachers, teachers, governors and parents. Just short of half of them worked at schools where some kind of staff restructuring – such as redundancies – was either under way or in the pipeline.
When asked about the impact of those changes, two-thirds said staff morale had dropped, more than three-quarters said their own workloads had increased, while almost half noted an increase in stress and health problems.
One Crawley staff member said: “Our school has too many managers, too top heavy. There isn’t enough support staff to do the work and so managers expect you to do more than expected.”
Another, in East Grinstead, said: “All members of staff have increased workloads to cover staff that have left and the position has not been refilled.”
In Worthing, one member said: “The role is poorly paid, frequently challenging and pay rises derisory. Many colleagues openly discuss a desire to seek alternative employment and express low levels of satisfaction regarding, pay and conditions.”
In Littlehampton, the job losses were seen to be having a knock-on effect, with one staff member saying: “Although few were made redundant, many left because of the stress.”
Another member from the same school said: “Staff feel that the quality of work they do has dropped as you don’t have the time to do the job properly.
“You just rush-rush-rush”
One Chichester teacher summed up what most appeared to be feeling and said: “Staff have been made redundant, downgraded or left and not been replaced.
“There is so much work to do and so few of us left to do it.”
One of the most concerning points raised in the survey came from a member who said unqualified support staff had been forced to step in and teach some Year 11 GCSE English classes during the last academic year.
She added: “Many other classes were covered by cover supervisors, where they were left to structure and prepare the classes for themselves from a very brief and incomplete note handed to them just as the class was starting – or left to find the instructions for themselves in messy classrooms.”
James Ellis, of Unison West Sussex, said the purpose of the survey was not to put further pressure on school leaders, who he described as having “to juggle competing pressures and increasing responsibilities to keep schools afloat”.
Rather it was to highlight the impact of some of the “difficult decisions” headteachers and governors had had to make as they attempted to balance their budgets.
Mr Ellis said Unison West Sussex was adding its voice to that of the Worth Less? campaign, which has been fighting for two years for a fairer funding settlement for the county’s schools.
He added: “The objective of our survey was therefore to highlight the very real crisis in West Sussex schools from the perspective of those on the ground, and how parents are experiencing it.
“We want the results to be used to support the claims for fairer funding of West Sussex schools, but also to lobby government for a total budget which is sufficient and fair to all children.”
Since April 2015, headteachers have fought to make the government understand schools need much more money than they currently receive if they are to provide the level of education our children deserve.
With West Sussex schools receiving £44m less than the national average and £200m less than the average London borough, the county was funded 148th out of 151 local authorities.
Every single headteacher welcomed the introduction of a new National Funding Formula (NFF), which would see the education budget more fairly divided.
It represented a huge success for their campaign.
But, with no money being added to that budget, the NFF would only see West Sussex schools gain £79 per pupil initially and then £144 per pupil by 2020.
Considering the current shortfall is £402 per pupil behind the national average, it’s easy to understand why the concerns continued.
Adding in unfunded costs burdens such as pension rises, national insurance increases and pay increments and many schools will actually be worse off.
Headteachers have long warned that this would lead to larger class sizes, fewer basic resources, a reduction in school hours and even job losses. Mr Ellis said: “There is only so far you can push staff before they reach breaking point.
“We do not expect our members to do more and more work as a result of restructure.
“This will lead to some difficult decisions for schools, which the Worth Less? campaign have ably illustrated with the warning that some schools may have to close one day a week.
“Unison is certainly seeing these circumstances reflected in increasing levels of casework for our officers and representatives.
“We are seeing a perfect storm of challenges for our trade union: reduced facility time, a fragmentation of the employer into academy chains, and increased pressure on our members from additional workloads and responsibility.”
With some schools already having to axe support staff, children with additional or special needs have been high on the radar of concerns for teachers.
One Worthing teacher said: “There are now less staff to support children with additional needs.
“Specialist teacher and learning support assistant support has been removed/reduced resulting in less support for children and additional work load and stress for other staff. This has an impact on all the children we work with, not just those with additional needs.
“There has also been a reduction in management roles, which means tasks have had to be redistributed to others who already had a significant work load.”
One Horsham teacher said there were no longer enough teaching assistants to support teachers in larger classes or to support children with special needs.
A colleague at the same school added there was not enough support or money to help diagnose children who needed extra help.
A Crawley teacher was more direct with their opinion, asking: “Not enough special educational needs money, only two full-time teaching assistant and three part-time. How the hell is that enough in a school?”
The issue of safety was also highlighted by people who responded to the survey.
In one Mid Sussex school, the two teaching assistants who left were also first aiders.
Their departure not only meant more would have to be trained but impacted on the first aiders who were left behind – interrupting their classes or lunch breaks whenever they were needed.
Looking at the responses from Unison members, Mr Ellis said: “It is clear from our members’ responses that their main concern is the children they are responsible for.
“For many of them, they could earn significantly more money, with significantly less stress, elsewhere.
“They do what they do because they care, they are public servants.”
He added: “It’s clear from the responses that it is the whole school that suffers from staffing cut-backs, not only the most vulnerable.
“Teachers are having to give more of their attention to those less able children which means that the staff dedicated to those most in need are spread ever thinner.
“Put simply, the loss of our members jobs means worse educational outcomes for all children.
“This is not just theory, but has been demonstrated by the results in the county attainment levels.”
In 2016, only 45 per cent of the county’s 11-year-olds made the grade in their reading, writing and maths tests, compared to a national average of 53 per cent.
A spokesman for the Worth Less? campaign said: "On the ground it's clear that the savage cuts to school funding is already having a huge negative impact. We have been saying for two years that schools will cut teachers, TAs and support staff and now it's happening.
"Curriculum offers in areas such as computing, DT and the Arts are also being reduced. When the new formula is announced it must bring some really significant funding to our schools. As the government presses on with policy initiatives such as grammar schools and free schools it should actually be spending money on basic funding for each cash strapped school in West Sussex.
"We hope that our local MPs are following up their excellent letter to the DfE and making clear behind the scenes that they cannot support any wasteful policies at a time of school financial crisis."
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