Supply teachers: ‘I spend £1,000 a year on materials for my pupils’

Mattha Busby
‘It’s now an unspoken expectation that staff spend their own money to do their job properly.’ Photograph: Catherine MacBride/Getty Images

Would you expect a nurse to have to pay for paracetamol for their patients or a firefighter to foot the bill for the water they use in putting out fires? With the schools budget in England slashed by £2.8bn since 2015 – an average of £53,000 and £178,000 for each primary and secondary school respectively – this is increasingly the reality for teachers.

New research from the National Education Union (the newly merged National Union of Teachers and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers) and TES has revealed that 94% of teachers are having to pay for school essentials such as books, while 73% are regularly paying for stationery supplies, because their schools are underfunded. For some, expenses total £1,000, while two-thirds have made cash donations – and this comes on top of the 42% of parents who were asked to donate to their children’s school this year. Other parents and carers have been asked to supply teaching equipment such as stationery and books, in addition to essentials such as toilet paper.

Here, five teachers describe how the schools funding crisis is hitting them in the pocket.

Dan, Isle of Wight

Staff have always been willing to spend some of their own money for the odd item, such as prizes for children, but the funding cuts are digging deep. This is making it hard for schools to manage without being subsidised by staff and parents.

It is wrong to rely on our goodwill to meet the shortfall, when pay has fallen over the past 10 years. The government needs to adequately fund schools so children can enjoy a full curriculum in properly resourced institutions.

What used to happen is that if you bought something for your department, you were able to claim it back. But the process today is so arduous and time-consuming that it is simpler just to pay and not claim, rather than ask to be reimbursed only to be ignored. I am constantly purchasing plastic wallets, Blu Tack, staples, sticky tape and card, and even batteries for remotes, because there isn’t enough money in the budget. Or I’ll find an activity where we don’t need to use things such as glue.

To save photocopying budgets, I have had to photocopy materials so small that students struggle to read them. We are also forced to buy significant numbers of foreign-language dictionaries. I have had to buy portable hard drives because the school hard drives are so full that I would need to delete older teaching materials if I want to save anything.

It is now an unspoken expectation that staff spend their own money to do their job properly. Would we expect a dentist to provide his own drill tips or a policeman to provide his own handcuffs? I hope the answer is no.

Martin, north-west England

I am a technology teacher and I’ve had to buy resources for my classes on many occasions. Recently, the technician, the head of department and I totalled the receipts of everything we had to buy that the kids needed over the year, above and beyond what the school would give us, and it was £5,500 between us. You don’t show the school the receipts for materials including wood, glue, nails, screws and plastic, because you can’t get the money.

Our technology department gets 20p a student per project, even though we teach woodwork, and the budget is gone within a month. I would say that in about 90% of schools, kids have to pay for technology and their parents are asked for a £10-£20 donation each year. That should go to our department, but it doesn’t always; we’ll still have to buy our own equipment.

What happens if we don’t buy the required equipment? Then we can’t do the work. We can’t get kids through the project and then they won’t get their GCSE. A lot of schools are binning off technology and vocational subjects because they see it as a financial burden. This means that kids who are better with their hands are getting pushed to one side.

At times you are having to do things for the class over your own quality of life. I don’t think you will find a happy teacher in the country.

Does anyone need a pen? Teachers are having to supply anything from rubbers to hard drives. Photograph: Rex Features

Rachel, north-west England

Schools are seriously underfunded and, as a result, massively under-resourced. Staff are not being replaced so teachers are covering subjects they do not specialise in. School trips are practically nonexistent and schools are taking on more students than they can handle in an attempt to secure more money. Therefore class sizes are increasing.

All this means that I am unable to do my job properly. I have a teaching and pastoral role, so I have seen the number of students with significant mental health issues increase while resources to support them decrease. Students increasingly have high anxiety and I have seen others self-harm and voice suicidal thoughts. However, there isn’t the pastoral support to help them any more, nor is there external support due to cuts to local authorities.

I often buy resources for the class, such as highlighters, notebooks, reading books and magazines. I also buy students their lunch if the school is being awkward about dinner money or they don’t have enough money on their account. My husband and I are both teachers, so the pay freeze has affected our standard of living and things are tough; money is tighter than it has ever been; we both have to make tiny savings to get through the week.

Staff morale is the lowest I have ever known it. Teachers are being stretched in so many different directions. Any time teachers might have once had to prep at school and complete the ever-increasing amount of admin is being taken away to cover for staff who aren’t being replaced. The mental health and safety of students is being compromised and staff are angry that they are powerless to support students.

Rick, north-east England

I have tried not bringing in resources and equipment such as pens for class to see what would happen. The child will sit there and say: “Well, I’m not doing any work then.” And then you have to start taking action against their behaviour, which feels like a massive overreaction. If kids are given £2 for their lunch, then they’re not going to spend 10p on a pen; they’re going to get something to eat. It is incredibly difficult to operate like this.

Ultimately, it comes down to the teacher being told: “Just give them a pen.” Nobody ever questions where that pen comes from. The “I haven’t got any” argument quickly gets turned into: “Well, how do you expect the kids to have pens if you don’t?”

The same argument goes for books. If you argue that we don’t have the right texts, you just get told: “Well, you’ll have to make do – other schools do.” It’s just the way of the world at the moment. The pressures on most schools mean that there is no excuse and there is very little understanding. If either you or the child need something the school cannot provide, then you either work around it or put your hand in your pocket.

We are all careful with the school budget, but I spend £250 of my own money every year. Teachers often have to provide all the extra materials to give kids the opportunity to expand their learning, as with art projects. That often comes from their own pockets, or from their recycling bins, to be quite honest.

It is not at all surprising that so many teachers don’t last. On top of that, our pay isn’t keeping pace with inflation and we are getting measured left, right and centre. There’s not a lot left to really keep people in it.

Linda, north-east England

The school supplies the normal, day-to-day things such as pens, rubbers and books, but that’s it. I spend at least £1,000 every year – that’s a holiday I could have taken my kids on, because we couldn’t afford one last year.

We are not well paid to start with and I am the only wage-earner in my household because my husband is medically retired. When I walk in with the shopping each day, my children ask whether it’s for us or the children at school. Every time I go out and buy something for school, that’s taking something away from my children. I have to justify this to myself every day.

Funding year-on-year is going down and costs are going up. Something has to give. It’s as if I have a choice between going out and buying equipment myself, or a member of staff losing their job – which is something that’s happening across the county.

This week, my primary school children are going to be doing crafts, so I have gone out and bought gems and other bits and bobs, plus gold paint, because there is none in the school. It has definitely got worse over the last couple of years.

My class has a high percentage of SEN (special educational needs) children and they really struggle with their maths and literacy; but they deserve to want to come to school, have hands-on experiences and enjoy learning. If I am not prepared to go the extra mile, then they won’t get to have these experiences. I will send a letter home asking the parents to send in stuff that they might have in their house. But you have got to be very aware of the family’s circumstances; children are living in deprivation across the country. It’s ridiculous that we have to ask parents to supply things that should be readily available.

All teachers’ names have been changed.

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