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What is the real cost of an underfunded education system?

The lack of funding in schools has been hitting the headlines in the UK recently, although often buried under the Brexit Shambles (B.S. for short). This article is not one where I will be decrying the real-terms fall in education investment by the government — there have been enough of those articles already. Instead, I will be taking a look at what the hidden costs of this are.

Trawling through the various articles written on the subject, and filtering it into a cohesive picture of what is going on is difficult, as schools are being affected in different ways. But there are some common themes appearing.

Buildings and Maintenance

The lack of funding has seen a reduction in the level of maintenance of school buildings. In 2018 a survey of 221 state-school heads found that

“funding pressures have forced them to cut routine building maintenance.”

TES

Safety

But the impact of this isn’t just on the buildings. If doors and windows need replacing the school site is less secure — leading to safeguarding issues.

Children go to school to be safe, for some it may be the only safe place they have. By underfunding schools, the government is showing, that it actually cares very little about their safety — instead, passing the buck to those who have to make difficult decisions with a falling budget. If (god forbid) there was an incident or accident — it is not the government who will carry the can, but those who run the school – leaders who do their best to maintain a safe environment for the children under their care.

Absence

If the heating doesn’t work, or the school can’t afford to run it then children are working in an environment that is not conducive to good health or concentration. Some schools report not turning the heating on until November, while global warming may mean temperatures are not as low as they might be — it can get too cold to work.

Are we really expecting children to wear their coats inside the building? Past experience has taught me that poorer children often don’t have a coat to wear outside — never mind inside. A vision of Bob Cratchett sat shivering on his office stool, while Scrooge bemoans the cost of coal, takes us back to the Victorian era.

Draughty cold buildings lead to a greater level of low-level ill health. Now schools are often hotbeds of germs and illnesses — which are frequently passed on to teachers, leading to either an increase in costs for supply cover or to support staff covering lessons (and despite their best efforts providing lower quality teaching experiences.

Germs and illnesses can usually be combatted by a good cleaning and having a pleasant environment in which to spend the day. In some schools, however, cleaners have been replaced by teachers, who are already overworked. They have added duties that should be jobs in their own right. No matter how well-intentioned — they will not be cleaning as well or as thoroughly as those whose role it is.

Remember that hotbed of germs and illnesses I mentioned before? And that increase in low-level ill health? Absenteeism has a negative effect on students achievement and behaviour if they are getting ill from attending the school, then this will increase.

If you read Ofsted reports a common theme in the list of what schools can do better is to reduce the rates of absence. Yet, medical guidance tells parents to keep children away from school for longer if there is vomiting or diarrhoea — an increase in this leads to schools now facing issues with the attendance data.

Self-esteem

Children who attend run-down schools see this as a reflection of themselves — a scruffy, unheated, school with no resources for books, paper or pens is a reflection of their value. It doesn’t matter how much teachers cover the cracks with beautiful displays and stunning examples of work, the children can see beyond it to the disrepair.

The government is alienating a generation of children and disenfranchising them. Who wants to attend a school like that — where your education is limited by the money spent on it. If the government don’t value education why should the children on the receiving end?

If children stop valuing their education, then teaching them just becomes so much harder. They would rather be anywhere else but in school. Cue a higher degree of truancy, delinquency and a poorer behaviour record.

Children treat objects the same way that they see others treat those objects. If the school is not important enough to invest in the buildings, and they are being left to rack and ruin, then children will have the same attitude.

Teaching and Support Staff

Lack of funding increases class sizes and reduces support for children because staffing is being reduced. There are only so many hours in the day and only so many hands to do the work.

Vulnerable Children

The impact of this affects all children, but the hardest hit is children with SEN, as schools facing a deficit struggle to find the funds for additional support. Some heads report having to let support staff go while watching the number of children with EHCPs increase. They are left wondering how they will cope with the statutory support that they have to provide. A special educational need doesn’t just disappear because the money has.

But this is a short-term effect — the long-term effects are much more wide-reaching and concerning.

Workload & Mental Health

Teaching workload is already a key issue with staff-retention and burn-out. Primary school teachers are on average working 54.4 hours a week already, with school leaders working more than 63. As class sizes increase something has to give. Each child added to a classroom adds work to the teachers day — whether it is planning differentiated work marking books, giving oral feedback or just dealing with their social and emotional wellbeing.

Teachers already put in more unpaid overtime than any other profession, and we wonder why they are leaving the profession in droves. Some reports state that as many as 2 in 5 left in the first 5 years.

Exhausted staff make mistakes, no matter how hard they try they will miss things, the quality of lessons will fall. Their ability to cope with stressful situations (and schools are full of them) will deteriorate and their mental health will suffer — leading to more of them leaving the profession.

The Wider Community

Vulnerable children are also negatively impacted by this added burden on teachers. They receive less attention, less support and make less progress. Their frustrations and anxieties will spill out in other ways — disruptive behaviour and absenteeism — leading to exclusions and pressures on families.

When schools have to close for 1 day a week because they can’t afford the staffing who bears the cost? The parents — they either have to find the money for childcare or take the day off work — which has a huge impact on their finances — particularly for poorer families. Stresses over money break poor families apart. This isn’t too far removed from what is happening already with nearly 20 schools around the country already closing at 1 pm on Friday.

The Future

What happens in two years, five years or even ten years time? When teaching is even less respected as a career and fewer and fewer people want to take the challenge on. Will there be a 3-day school week with children out working to help their families make ends meet?

This disenfranchised generation of children who have been taught that they are not valued will grow up to be adults. Their views of school will be passed on to their children. Schools will be valued even less.

Rich well-educated parents are supporting their schools with donations, something that schools in poorer areas can’t hope to do. These well-supported schools won’t suffer in quite the same way (although the fact that they are having to ask for money is ludicrous!). The gap between rich and poor will grow.

The level of education in the country declines, employers increase their complaints about a workforce not qualified to work for them. Increased unemployment and a greater burden on the Welfare State

I don’t want to paint an image of an Orwellian dystopia, but as someone who is passionate about education, something has to change or this could all come to pass. An investment in education is an investment in the future, it is an investment in the people who will solve the problems that we leave behind.

How would you overcome these difficulties with a limited budget?

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