We all know there is a looming educational funding crisis but the situation in West Sussex is critical. We are the worst funded County Council in the country and come 151st out of 154 authorities in the national per pupil funding league table (Poole, Wokingham and South Gloucestershire are lower but are not counties).
In response to this the West Sussex Secondary Heads’ Association launched the Worth Less? Campaign over a year ago to try and engage support for better funding. It ran but yielded no tangible results. With the delay of the National Funding Formula until April 2018 a difficult situation for West Sussex schools was fasting becoming a crisis so Worth Less? was reborn … and this time it attracted some attention.
The difference second time around was that we worked with the County Council who realised we were not crying wolf. A crisis was imminent. The leader of the County Council wrote to the Education Secretary and on the second page of her letter at the end of a range of consequences a critical line was included that schools would be… “reviewing school opening hours”. This was not intended to threaten or blackmail. It was simply a statement of fact. Unless West Sussex schools received a transitional payment for 2017-2018 most could not set balanced budgets in the following year and would need to look and see if they were able to open for all year groups on all days. It was that bad. Now when parents may have to pick up their children early one day a week as schools may have to close early the media starts getting interested. The phone rang on a Sunday afternoon and “Good Morning Britain” wanted an interview. Piers Morgan was his normal provocative self was but gracious enough to concede that it was not blackmail about early closure when I explained that I had been there before. Whilst working in Oxfordshire we had faced a similar situation as a school and had sent year 7 and 8 home at lunchtime one day a week. It was the mid-1990s and a time of council tax cuts and a lack of money in education.
Our campaign has been nobly co-ordinated by Jules White who is Headteacher at Tanbridge House School. He set up a Facebook site “Worth Less? West Sussex if you search it and the “likes” started pouring it. We were suddenly in demand with appearances on the Sunday Politics Show, South Today, Meridian News and national and local papers. The dire situation of educational funding for those at the bottom of the league table was slowly becoming apparent to a much wider audience.
A critical part of our campaign was and is that we have worked closely with our West Sussex MPs. We have made it our business to make sure they know the situation we are in. All are conservatives. They are somewhat caught in the middle with their party trying to slash a national deficit and save public spending but listening to prophecies of doom from their Headteachers. And it is not just one or two of their Headteachers but all of them, all 37 of their Secondary Headteachers, their Special School Headteachers and all 200+ of their Primary Headteachers as well. Our voice is one and consistent and our parents are listening and they are supportive because it is their children’s education that is at stake. We cannot set budgets without an interim financial settlement for 2017-2108 or our classes will be so large they will not fit in rooms and we will have to start to destroy what we have spent years growing and nurturing.
When news agencies contact the DfE for a response to our cries of funding crisis they get the same reply that there is a National Funding Formula coming. Yes … we know this but we are telling them we are in crisis now. At times we have really questioned whether some at the DfE know what is going on in schools. In the “Teachers’ Financial Toolkit” it suggests that staffing costs may account for more than 50% of your budget. No… we are really lucky if we can get them down to 80%.
And so the updates continue on most of the West Sussex school websites around the county. And so we are relentless. We delivered a petition to Downing Street with students of all ages. It was not the same Headteachers giving interviews but a range. This campaign is not about me and my school it is about all of the young people in West Sussex having an educational experience that is equal to other young people in the country as our funding is so poor. Our MPs carried the message to Parliament. Nicholas Soames, MP for East Grinstead secured a debate in Westminster Hall. Some of our MPs will be at our termly seminar in November. They are the ones mostly likely to champion our cause and I suspect the wider cause of education funding in other places.
Together Headteachers, parents, students and our MPs repeat the message that the students of West Sussex are not Worth Less.
Peter Woodman is Headteacher of The Weald School and Sixth form, Chair of West Sussex Heads Association.