How Funding Cuts And Rising Poverty Are Pushing Schools To Breaking Point

Aasma Day
A child arriving at Moorside Community Primary School in the morning

At 8:40am, Dani Worthington assumes her post outside the entrance to Moorside Community Primary School in Ovenden, near Halifax in West Yorkshire. As parents arrive to drop off their kids, the headteacher greets them by name and quietly asks how they are coping.

They tell her about their struggles – their lack of sleep, their lack of money, the way their children are acting up. One worried mother approaches Worthington and asks whether her child’s rash might be chicken pox. 

“Rather than ringing me up, parents can just come over and chat,” Worthington said, explaining why she has made a habit of greeting parents and children at the start of each school day. “The trust gradually built up, and they began sharing their concerns and telling me about problems at home.”

Sometimes the problems are so obvious that words are unnecessary. A young pupil with pallor in his cheeks trudges towards the entrance in a red jumper riddled with holes, the soles of his scuffed shoes flapping on the ground. Worthington greets him brightly, tousling his hair.

Ovenden, just north of Halifax town centre in the borough of Calderdale, is one of the poorest areas in the country. Around thirty-six percent of children aged 15 and under are from income-deprived families, where parents are out of work, rely on government benefits or have lower earnings compared to other areas of the country, according to government data. According to the last UK census, the unemployment rate in Ovenden is 8%, more than double the national average.

The number of families in the area who rely on food banks has been rising, particularly since the controversial Universal Credit benefits scheme was rolled out in 2017, pushing many poor people into financial difficulty while they wait for payments. Increased austerity has forced children’s centres, youth clubs and counselling services to close. Crime and drug use are high.

These problems have only increased the burdens on teachers and staff at schools like Moorside, which are already grappling with cuts to the education budget. Over the past decade, school spending per pupil in the UK has fallen by about 8% in real terms – the largest decline since at least the 1970s, according to a recent report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies. The government has pledged billions of pounds in additional school spending over the next three years. But the larger cuts to benefits and support services means that schools like Moorside must take on even more responsibility for caring for children.

In this sense, Moorside – which has ten teachers and 245 pupils aged three through eleven – is a typical school. Its problems are mirrored across the country. Schools all over the UK are struggling not only to provide a quality education, but also to address the needs of some of society’s most vulnerable children. 

HuffPost UK spent a week at Moorside in order to observe the effects of poverty and austerity on children, teachers and school administrators. The picture that emerged was one of teachers and school staff pushed nearly to the breaking point by the combination of funding cuts, declining support services and rising poverty.

“We are fielding everyone else’s cutbacks and having to be social workers, police officers, mental health workers and providing support for families,” Worthington said. “Everyone else can just put these people on a waiting list. But we can’t – we have to come in and see these children day in, day out.”

Dani Worthington, headteacher at Moorside Community Primary School

As the school bell trills at 8:50am, signalling the official start of the day, a few stragglers hurry towards the doors. Trays laden with bagels spread with jam and butter await the children just inside the entrance, and they hungrily tuck in as they make their way to their classrooms. For many youngsters, this is the first food they’ve had that day. For some, it’s their first meal since lunch the day before.

Approximately 1.8 million school-age children in the UK are at risk of hunger in the morning, according to Unicef. And when children are hungry, learning is the last thing on their minds. In April, a survey of 8,600 teachers and other school staff conducted by the National Education Union found that 91% of teachers felt that poverty was a factor in limiting children’s capacity to learn, and 75% blamed poverty for children falling asleep during lessons, being unable to concentrate and behaving badly.

“No child should go hungry, but they’re coming into school hungry,” said Katy Empsell, a teaching assistant at Moorside. “You go home and eat your own meal and feel guilty, because you know there are children waiting that full 24 hours until their next school meal.”

At Moorside, therefore, making sure students are fed has become a priority. Since 2016, the Magic Breakfast charity, which aims to combat hunger in schools, has provided bagels to Moorside so the school can provide a free meal to all children each morning, on top of its heavily subsidised Breakfast Club.

Milk and other free snacks are also available in the nursery and in the reception class, and fruit is placed in bowls throughout the school so that students can grab a pick-me-up throughout the day, as needed. At breaktime, toast can also be purchased for a subsidised amount – 10p per slice.

At the end of each half term, the school makes any excess breakfast stock available to parents to take home. School holidays can be particularly difficult, because many poor families rely on the school to provide meals. “We find a decline in the behaviour of some of the children before a holiday, as they know the safety blanket of school is going to be taken away,” said Lisa Farrell, an attendance officer. “School is their safe haven and gives them stability.”

Monica Dollard, another teaching assistant at Moorside, said that students often tell her that there’s no food at home. “People are literally living hand-to-mouth,” she said, “and it is ultimately the children who suffer.”

Free bagels for children at Moorside Community Primary School

After morning lessons in phonics or spelling, the children head to the school hall for assembly at 9:25am. The room transforms into a sea of red jumpers as the students sit on the floor in neat rows, their eyes gazing earnestly towards the front of the room. One particular assembly elicits roars of laughter from the children as Andrea Carter, a Year 5 teacher, shuffles on stage dressed as a penguin and performs a tap-dance routine. 

Carter’s performance isn’t purely for entertainment, however. Her class has been working to produce a small book about reducing traffic congestion by walking rather than driving, as part of a creative competition with other schools. But the competition covered only £100 of the cost of printing the books, leaving Carter’s class £50 short – more than Moorside’s budget could spare. To make up the shortfall, Carter and her pupils held a cake sale at school. And, knowing the parents of Moorside pupils don’t have cash to spare, Carter did her bit by doing the tap-dancing stunt in exchange for sponsorship from her colleagues.

Teachers at Moorside are constantly dipping into their own pockets for things like art supplies, glue sticks and food for cooking activities. Although they can submit receipts for expenses, most don’t as they feel guilty doing so when the school is under such financial pressure. “We would rather that money was put into support staff for children to talk to and have that shoulder to lean on,” said Dawn Crowther, a Year 1 teacher.

Across the country, in response to budget cuts, teachers and other school staff are increasingly paying for classroom supplies. One in five teachers said they had paid for lessons resources with their own money once a week, and one in ten said they did so several times a week, according to a survey this year by the Teachers’ union NASUWT. More than half – 53% – said they did this due to funding pressures on their schools, and 45% of those surveyed said they had spent their own money buying basic necessities for pupils including food, toiletries, clothing and shoes.

To cut down on costs, teachers have had to get creative. Crowther spends her weekends scouring car boot sales for resources to bring her lessons to life and persuades people to donate their time gratis. “Last term, we got the firefighters to do a free talk,” she said. “And when were were studying animals, we got Animal Rescue to come in and made a donation.” When her students were learning about forests, she led a trip to the woods herself, rather than booking a ranger.

Such field trips aren’t “jollies”, said Judy Shaw, president of the National Association of Headteachers. They’re meant to enrich children’s lives and expose them to things they wouldn’t ordinarily experience. But these outings are becoming something of a luxury. “Increasingly, schools can’t subsidise these trips, and it is the most disadvantaged kids that will suffer,” Shaw said.

Parveen Rehman, a Year 4 teacher, said that teachers today are expected to tackle everything from knife crime to mental health to sex education – with ever-shrinking resources. “All the cuts are trickling down from the government,” said Rehman. “There’s a lot more expected with higher targets, and everything is thrown back at schools. But we have less resources than ever. The added stresses and pressures from government take the enjoyment out of teaching.”

Following her penguin tap-dance routine, Carter criticised the government for being out of touch with the needs of poor people. “They are stopping benefits and making people jump through hoops for disability payments,” she said. Halifax was one of the first places the Universal Credit benefit program was introduced in 2017. Currently, more than 10,000 people in Halifax are enrolled in the programme, which critics have blamed for pushing more families into poverty. Teachers at Moorside say they know parents who have turned to food banks because they can’t afford to feed their children, and families who have been evicted from their homes because they couldn’t keep up with the rent.

“There are a lot of people in government sat in their ivory towers who don’t know what it is like on the ground for people,” Carter said.

Moorside Community Primary School in Ovenden, Halifax, West Yorkshire

While teachers labour to meet ever-increasing demands in the age of austerity, few members of the Moorside staff are more familiar with the struggles of poor families than the pastoral team.

After school starts each day, attendance officer Lisa Farrell and her colleagues begin ringing the parents of children who haven’t turned up. Some students struggle to get out of bed and just need a push, but certain children need to be checked on immediately, due to child protection and safeguarding issues. The pastoral team has five emergency contact numbers for each child, and if they can’t get a response, they carry out a home visit.

These visits expose some of the harrowing conditions children are living in – bleak rooms with peeling walls and broken doors and windows. Some children sleep on mattresses on the floor. Instead of toys and books, they are surrounded by expanses of uncarpeted floor with just a settee and maybe a television in the corner. 

Farrell said that she has seen children with such severe cases of head lice that their scalps bleed from all the itching. “We had one girl whose head was visibly moving with all the lice. I’ve never seen infestation like it,” Farrell said. “It took me a couple of days to remove them, and there were thousands of head lice. I had to get the vacuum cleaner out.”

If the members of the pastoral team find evidence that a child is in danger, they will contact social services. And if they can’t get a response at all, they must alert the police so that officers can conduct a welfare check.

“I go home many times crying,” said Farrell. “When you know you are sending a child back to a house which is dirty, has no food and where they may not feel 100% safe, you feel powerless.” 

Some children at Moorside Community Primary School arrive in tatty uniform and falling apart shoes

Poor conditions at home and cuts to social services can have a spillover effect in school. The nursery and reception rooms at Moorside are brimming with colourful toys and craft supplies. But amid the hive of activity and chatter, children singing and playing with building blocks, it quickly becomes clear that some children are far behind their peers when it comes to language and social skills.

“Children can start school life as quite unruly, and we have to teach them ‘please’ and ‘thank you’,” said Cath Quinn, one of the nursery teachers. A few children even begin school without being toilet trained.

Some children have learning and behavioural difficulties, but cuts to support services in the community means that youngsters are often waiting longer to be diagnosed. Any support, such as counselling and speech and  language therapy, often has to come out of the school budget. In addition, a child’s environment at home can also contribute to developmental conditions. “We had one girl come in speaking with an American accent – but she was just from Ovenden,” said Monica Dollard. “She had been sat watching American TV all day before starting school.” 

Disruptive behaviour has become an increasing problem at Moorside, as the school is accepting more children with complex needs. “Some of the language children come out with is shocking at such a young age,” said Worthington. “It shows what they are getting exposed to outside these school walls, and it’s heartbreaking.”

Teaching assistants like Dollard provide crucial support for children who are behind socially and academically – particularly those who begin school life at low levels of ability. However, teaching assistant roles are disappearing across the country, as headteachers face the unenviable task of cutting costs to balance the books, due to government funding cuts over the last few years. Even though TA salaries are low, their roles are usually the first to go. A report this year from the Sutton Trust, an educational charity which aims to improve social mobility and address educational disadvantages, noted that 72% of senior leaders in primary schools across the country reported cutting teaching assistants.

Moorside has lost four teaching assistants over the last two years, and they haven’t been replaced due to a lack of funding. As headteacher, however, Worthington is adamant that TAs are a necessity, not a luxury – particularly at a school like hers where so many children come from deprived backgrounds and exhibit challenging behaviours. “I cannot afford to lose any more TAs without it affecting the quality of teaching and learning,” she said.

Holding a gas bill in her hand that’s more expensive than she had anticipated, Worthington is stressed about where she will find the money to pay it. “Every single penny is accounted for for the next three years,” she said, “so anything unexpected is awful.”

“We live in constant fear of something breaking or needing replacing,” Worthington said. “I don’t want to make any TAs redundant.”

Year 4 teacher Parveen Rehman

In their classrooms, teachers at Moorside keep a Mr Happy teddy bear that students can cuddle when they feel low and a Mr Worry Monster, so they can write down their concerns and put them inside. Their childish scrawl describes anxieties that run the gamut from fears about an impending dentist appointment to distress over where they will sleep, because their family is being evicted from their home.

But caring for children facing such challenging conditions takes its toll on the school’s staff as well. The work is intense and emotionally draining. “Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night stressing about things, or I feel physically sick in the morning worrying about everything I have to do,” said Paula Howarth, the school’s pastoral manager. 

In her office, Worthington keeps a box of tissues on her desk, and she and her staff often cry together when they feel overwhelmed. “I am so full of admiration for them, but I worry about them,” Worthington said of her staff. “They want to do everything for these children, but often they feel so helpless.” 

The experiences of the staff at Moorside are reflected across the country. Twenty percent of teachers in the UK expect to leave the profession in less than two years, according to a poll by the National Education Union, the country’s biggest teaching union, and 40% of teachers, school administrators and support staff expect to quit within five years, citing workload pressures and “excessive accountability”, among other factors.

Andy Mellor, a primary school headteacher in Blackpool who served as president of the National Association of Head Teachers until May, said that teachers suffer from “guilt syndrome” and end up leaving the profession because they feel like they can’t meet the needs of struggling children.

“Teachers are in less of a position to help these pupils, so they end up feeling guilty, and it affects their mental health, leading to a crisis in recruitment and retention,” he said. “It all stems from a lack of funding.”

“The government wants a world-class education system,” he said. “But they want it built on a third-world budget.”

At the end of the school day, Worthington once again takes her position outside the school gates. As she waves goodbye to parents and students, she reflects on her own childhood, and the circumstances that inspired her to pursue a career in education.

When Worthington was five years old, her mother abandoned the family, and her father – professional footballer Dave Worthington – was left to raise her and her two siblings on his own. School provided a crucial source of support.

“School was always there for me,” Worthington said. “They were so caring and supportive, and it stuck with me. So I always knew I wanted to work in a school like this so I could give something back.”

As the final children depart, Worthington is almost knocked off her feet by a little girl who throws her arms around her. “Bye Mrs Worthington,” she says. “I love you. Thank you.”

As she watches the youngster walk away with her mother, her school bag swinging from her shoulder, Worthington whispers: “That’s why we do it.”

WHAT THE DEPARTMENT FOR EDUCATION SAYS:

A spokesperson for the Department for Education told HuffPost UK: “This government has announced the biggest funding boost for schools in a decade which will give every school more money for every child.

“This means all secondary schools will receive a minimum of £5,000 per pupil next year while all primary schools will get a minimum of £4,000 from 2021 to 2022 – with the biggest increases going to the schools that need it most.

“It’s because we’ve recognised the pressures schools have faced and have listened to teachers and parents that we are investing a total of £14 billion more in schools over the next three years to 2022 to 2023.

This money will allow schools to invest more in teachers and resources to ensure that all children get the top quality education they deserve.”

The department added that it is a matter for school leaders to set the price of school trips, but they are expected to be mindful of costs and make sure they are as affordable as possible for all parents.

The department said that since 2011, around 0.7% of schools’ total income has come from voluntary donations and said that when requesting voluntary contributions, schools must make it clear to parents that they are under no obligation to donate.

Moorside Community Primary School

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