schools consider introducing four-day week

Gayathri | Tuesday, October 4, 2016 9:59 AM IST

Schools in West Sussex are warning they may have no option but to cut their hours – even floating the idea of a four-day week – unless they are given emergency financial help from the government.

After years of underfunding, headteachers in every primary, secondary and special school in the county have written to parents saying all the obvious cuts to school spending have already been made. Now they are considering “modifying school hours” as a last-ditch attempt to cut costs.

School leaders in West Sussex – and other underfunded counties – were pinning their hopes on the government’s new national funding formula for schools, which was due to be introduced next year, to address historic inequities in the system. But that was delayed in the wake of the Brexit vote and now headteachers in West Sussex say they need a £20m emergency injection of funds next April to tide them over.

The mechanics behind a change to a four-day school week remain unclear, but leaders of the Worth Less? campaign in West Sussex are hoping their warnings will focus the minds of government ministers, among them schools minister Nick Gibb, who is MP for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton.

Parents are supportive of the schools’ campaign and have signed a petition calling for additional transitional funding, but any attempt to reduce school hours is likely to trigger concerns about the impact on their children’s education and the childcare nightmare it would present.

“It’s not a place we really want to go,” said Peter Woodman, headteacher of the Weald school in Billingshurst. “But we are considering all the options and that’s one option we have to consider. If we are trying to save money there are limited things we can do.”

This year, West Sussex children received £44m less than the national average, and £200m less than the average London borough, where children from deprived backgrounds attract additional funding. In addition, increased pensions and national insurance contributions have cut school budgets by 8-10% year on year.

Other cost-cutting proposals being considered are larger class sizes, cutting back on cleaning and site maintenance, reduced spending on books and IT, a more basic curriculum and not replacing staff who leave. But some schools have already taken those steps and still need to find more savings.

Responding to reports of a possible four-day school week, Helen Quiroga, parent governor at Felpham community college in Bognor Regis, said: “Parents would have quite a lot to say if the situation came to that.

“Schools don’t like parents taking children out on holiday because of the impact it can have on their education over the years. If it was a case of children going to school for four days out of five and that’s a permanent arrangement, it would have a devastating effect on their education.”

Quiroga, who has two children aged 15 and 17 at the school, said parents could see that headteachers in West Sussex were being “pushed into a corner” because of sustained underfunding and she supported the campaign for fair funding, but she said she would oppose a four-day school week.

“I know the school has worked very hard and has never had lots of money. All the staff work so hard. But I would oppose it personally. I can’t imagine it, to be honest.”

The Felpham headteacher, Mark Anstiss, acknowledged the problems it would cause parents. “It would be terrible. I recognise the burden it would place on parents with the childcare costs and so on that they would have to incur if we did this. But we can’t run the school the way that we have been with the money we get at the moment.”

When Anstiss became headteacher in 2010 he inherited a £343,000 deficit. He has worked hard to pay off the deficit and bring the school up from an Ofsted rating of “requires improvement” to “good”, against a backdrop of increasing class sizes, less money for ICT, reduced GCSE and A-level options, and not replacing teachers who leave.

“I really am scratching my head to think about where we can make more cuts – all the obvious things we can do, we’ve done over the years,” he said. “It just seems really unfair.”

Louise Goldsmith, leader of West Sussex county council, has written to the education secretary, Justine Greening, asking for urgent government support to meet cost pressures until a new funding formula can be introduced.

“As schools and academies in West Sussex are the fifth lowest funded nationally they simply cannot absorb more pressure on their budgets, which are already squeezed to the limit.

“Headteachers have advised us because of the very difficult financial situation they are now facing, next year they may well be looking at a range of cost-saving options including schools moving to reduced hours. However, we very much hope this can be avoided.”

The Department for Education said the government was firmly committed to introducing a national funding formula so all schools were funded fairly.

“We want all schools, including those in West Sussex, to have access to the resources they need so that every pupil regardless of background or ability can reach their full potential. That’s why we have protected the schools budget so that, as pupil numbers increase, so will the amount of money for our schools – in 2016-17 that will total over £40bn, the highest on record.”