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Parents support headteachers' protest last week

By Kate Hilpern

It’s not often that parents would support the idea of headteachers taking to the streets in an act of anarchy instead of spending their working day looking after their child’s school. But parents have been overwhelming in their support of the 2,000 headteachers from England, Wales and Northern Ireland who marched on Downing Street last Friday to make a stand against school funding cuts.

Yes, there were the inevitable Daily Mail headlines of ‘hypocritical’ headteachers ‘accused of setting poor example for taking day off to protest cuts.’ ‘But I don’t think I came across a single colleague – and I spoke to a lot – at the march that didn’t say every single message they received from parents by email or verbally was in favour of us making a stand to try and help their children’s education,’ says Tony Markham, head of Herne Junior School in Petersfield, whose budget is estimated to be £230,000 in deficit by 2020-2021. ‘Well done,’ ‘Thank you,’ and ‘You care and that matters to us,’ were the messages that flooded through, he says.

These parents, he says, have seen for themselves how some schools don’t have enough pencils, pens and books, while others have had to axe subjects and extracurricular activities. ‘In some schools, they are having to combine classes for primary aged children. In others, they are having to ask parents to contribute money to get them through the year – and I don’t mean the summer fairs, but regular monthly payments. We are struggling to keep the lease on our interactive whiteboards and many schools are having to let staff go,’ he says.

Let’s not get things out of perspective here – this was no unruly riot. ‘Don’t be chaining yourselves to the railings now ladies,’ someone joked at the protest as the heads – adorning their smart suits and business wear – were more than a little awkward, most of them having never been to a protest in their lives.  ‘I’m not the marching type – the majority of us aren’t the marching type. That was kind of our point, I suppose,’ says Markham.

According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, per pupil funding has fallen eight per cent in real terms since 2010 and, said the headteachers on Friday, they have quite simply had enough of their budgets being squeezed by unfunded pay rises, national insurance payments, other cost pressures and rising pupil numbers.

Others, including Markham, point to England’s new funding formula which aimed to make the amount which different local authorities receive per pupil more fair. ‘But nobody even bothers pretending it’s “fair” now – the word even dropped out of the government’s vocabulary once they realised that, like any formula, there are winners and losers. But in this case, it’s just not right, with some schools getting more money than others regardless of the need, while others like us are hugely struggling to keep our schools afloat.’

Much as they understand ‘there is no bottomless pit,’ says Markham – whose county, Hampshire, has one of the lowest per pupil funding rates in the country since the new formula - ‘We are making the statement from the grass roots that our budgets are taking such a nose dive that they’ll be over the cliff in another year or so.’

Parents, he adds, have seen for themselves the impact, both in terms of emotional well-being and academically. ‘For instance, we had a child who experienced trauma and we brought in a counsellor as a support, but when I looked at my stretched budget, I had to say I can’t continue with your provision anymore,’ says Markham.

Another headteacher at the march from Suffolk told the BBC how she’d been bitten by a pupil that week – ‘It wasn’t his fault, it was because of a situation outside of school, and his emotional support had been cut two weeks earlier because of the cuts – we have pupils who are distressed and angry and we can’t help them.’

There’s an inevitable hit on the children academically too, claims Markham. ‘We’ve seen the dip – five per cent here or there – on our results for combined reading, writing and maths. While we used to have four qualified teachers helping with support work, two years ago I had to let them all go.’ And that’s before he’s even started on the cuts affecting children with special education needs.

No wonder parents are patting them on the backs, he says – ‘and I’m pleased that what we did on Friday will make even more people – more voters – aware of what is happening to our schools.’

But ultimately, he says, the point was ‘to say to the government, “Please sit up and stop not listening,” which is why our social media hashtag is #stillnotlistening and which is why the letter we delivered to Chancellor Philip Hammond explains how funding cuts are unsustainable. I want the government to look long and hard at the 2020 spending review and see education not as a cost but as an investment.’..

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