Give me a break

I’ve been told that my blog posts are too long for the average attention span. This one will be quite short. Please read it.

In 2013, I became headteacher of a school that faced a half a million pound deficit, with no reserves to fall back on. In layman’s terms, if I didn’t do something in my first year as head, our expenditure would have exceeded our income by about £500,000 and there was no fuel in the tank.

I cannot describe what it felt like to address this. But my discomfort was nothing compared to those who suffered as a result of the decisions I had to make.

To make matters worse, in the coming years, real-term funding was squeezed. I made redundancies in three of the first four years I was at the school.

We hit rock bottom when the ESFA (academies’ funding agency) threatened the school with a Financial Notice to Improve (FNtI) at the end of a meeting one Friday afternoon. In layman’s terms, this is a public shaming. I spent an anxious weekend drafting an email to talk our way out of this. It worked.

I was called to a meeting attended by an ESFA and a representative of the Regional Schools Commissioner’s office. The state of our situation was set out bleakly. The RSC person listened carefully, turned to the ESFA representative and said ‘It sounds like the school aren’t receiving enough funding’. In that moment, I knew I wasn’t losing my mind. The impenetrable bureaucracy had shown its human face.

A ‘specialist’ was called in to advise me on managing my finances. At one point they asked if I could ’employ cheaper teachers’.

After seven years, we turned a corner. In that period, we had improved our school in a plethora of ways. Then the pandemic hit.

This summer, we submitted a three year forecast which showed us building a small reserve to mitigate future risks – the boiler breaking down or a ceiling falling in. And finally, we had some capacity to invest.

And now? Unfunded pay rises and astronomical energy costs have wiped out nine years of hard work. Broke again.

People online urge headteachers to speak out. But the words choke me. We provide a great education on a shoestring budget. We have accepted every challenge thrown at us. Pandemic – we’ll manage. Mental health crisis – what can we do to help? So, help me out here. Come on. Give me a break.

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