SCHOOLS are notoriously guarded when it comes to their finances.

But in recent months, it is safe to say they have started to let their guards down.

School leaders across the country have written to parents and carers about the impact a decade of austerity has had on the education system.

The unprecedented action recently forced a heated debate in Parliament as schools minister Nick Gibb repeated the government’s claims of record education spending levels.

Indeed, core funding for schools and high needs will rise from almost £41 billion in 2017-18 to £43.5 billion by 2019-20.

But of course, that only tells half the story.

Back in January primary school head teachers across St Helens wrote to thousands of parents and carers over fears budgets will be “unsustainable” by 2019.

The campaign was led by the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) for St Helens.

But it was actually St Thomas of Canterbury Primary School in Windle that bravely took the first step in November to inform parents it was predicting a “massive deficit” for the coming school year.

Not only did the school predict that it was facing a deficit of £90,000 in 2019-20, but it expects this to double to more than £200,000 by 2020-21.

“We are getting to the point where we won’t be able to pay salaries,” Kathy Hall, head teacher at St Thomas of Canterbury, said.

“When we get to £200,000, our biggest cost to the budget will be staff salaries. That is a real concern if it gets to a point where haven’t got enough money to pay staff.

“We’ve already cut staff to the bone.”

The dire outlook of the school has now forced the head teacher and its governors to start thinking about what it can cut out of the budget that will still enable it to carry out its statutory duties.

One such option mooted by Mrs Hall, albeit an extreme measure, would be to reduce the school’s opening hours.

“There are schools that have gone to a four-day week,” Mrs Hall told the Local Democracy Reporting Service.

“That would be awful for us to have to do that. That would impact adversely on our children.

“But we have to find some solution to this.

“We have to ask ourselves – what do we put in place for us to survive?”

One of the biggest pressures on school budgets in recent years has been the increasing demand for support for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

Funding for schools is met from the Dedicated Schools Grant (DSG), a ring-fenced grant made up of four blocks: schools; high needs; early years and central school services.

The DSG is then allocated by the local authority using the national funding formula.

Last year St Helens Council carried out a consultation with primary and secondary schools on proposals to transfer 0.5% of the DSG schools block to the high needs block in 2019-20.

This would fund the costs of top-up payments for pupils with SEND in primary and secondary schools.

The transfer is something the schools forum, which is made up of head teachers and governors from across the borough, have previously approved annually.

However, this year schools decided that enough was enough.

Retired teacher Bill Bradbury, vice chairman of schools forum, said: “I said this year, we’ve had enough of this.

“Looking at school budgets, we can’t afford it. We’ve got to kick back on this.

“We’re not going to agree to it this year.”

When it came to make the decision, the schools forum rejected the proposals.

As it turned out, school leaders in St Helens were not alone as schools forums around the country also decided to kick the proposals back to the Secretary of State for Education.

The actions of school leaders appeared to be effective, with the government announcing mid December it would hand councils an extra £350 million in funding to support children with SEND.

Councils will receive a share on an additional £125 million this year and a further £125 million in 2019-20 to top up high needs budgets for maintained schools and academies.

Local authorities will also get £100 million in capital funding to create more specialist places in special and mainstream schools.

The additional funding for St Helens is £233,000.

This takes the total allocation of SEND funding to £849,000 for the three-year period 2018-19 to 2020-21.

The additional funds helps reinforce the Department for Education’s (DfE) rebuttal that funding will be at its highest ever level by 2020.

However, figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies show overall school funding has declined by 8% in real terms since 2010.

And when cuts need to be made, it is usually the teaching assistants (TAs) who are the first to go.

That is according to Mr Bradbury, a governor at Mill Green School, a special school in Parr, and Billinge Chapel End Primary in Billinge.

Mr Bradbury said: “Because of all these cutbacks, the TAs are the first to be taking the hit.

“It’s the TAs that deliver the system who are actually the ones who are being fired off.

“That’s my concern, and it’s not right. I just feel frustrated.

“How do you deliver a system with people who are not there?”

While the school funding crisis has received increasingly more attention of late, Mr Bradbury believes the problems are only going to worsen.

“We’re at the mercy now of central government funding,” Mr Bradbury said.

“The national press and the educational press are saying school need much more funding for special needs for high needs and for budgets.

“All you get from the government is, ‘we’ve increased the budget this year by X billions of pounds, they’ve never been better funded, so what’s the problem?’”

For 2019-20, St Helens is due to receive around £150 million in funding through the DSG. This represents around £5 million in additional funding compared to 2018-19.

The extra money is being given to schools to pay for the “little extras” as announced – and widely condemned – in Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Autumn Budget.

Crucially, schools won’t be able to use this cash to pay staff’s wages, which is the biggest pressure.

School leaders would have been hoping for more funding in the Chancellor’s Spring Statement this week.

However, the significant annoucement was that secondary schools will start providing free sanitary products to girls in an attempt to tackle “period poverty”.

Andy Howard, NAHT secretary for St Helens, said he does not know of any head teacher in St Helens that will not be looking to make “radical cuts” in order to come up with a balanced budget for 2019-20.

The Legh Vale Primary School head teacher said: “Previously we have heard from small schools about budget pressures. A lot of large schools seem to have been protected.

“But now it is all of them. They have been cut to the core.

“You can reduce learning support hours, but then it is the most vulnerable children in schools that will suffer. You get to the point where you can’t do any more.

“The money isn’t enough to carry on. We’re doing what we can to fund a school.

“Since I have been a head in 2010, these children have known nothing but austerity.

“I feel the government should be investing in these children.

“They are the future. That’s what upsets me.”

Mr Howard said the picture for schools is a “bleak one”, adding that teachers want ministers to start being honest with just how much funding it is providing for mainstream schools.

Despite the funding concerns, the DfE pointed to the latest published data that shows that no local authority-maintained schools were in deficit in St Helens in 2017-18.

Additionally, the DfE said in 2017-18, maintained schools in St Helens held total surpluses of £9.2 million.

The issue of surplus balances has been a particular issue for some school leaders in St Helens.

Currently, St Helens Council has a clawback mechanism in place, which is a tool that allows local authories to ‘clawback’ surplus balances from schools.

In 2017-18 a total of 12 primary schools, one high school, two special schools and a pupil referral unit (PRU) exceeded the threshold.

Despite this a decision was made by Professor Sarah O’Brien, St Helens Council’s strategic director of people’s services, to let the schools keep the extra cash.

In July members of the schools forum were informed of this decision.

Claire Cropper, head teacher of St Bartholomew’s Catholic Primary School, said the clawback mechanism is a “pointless exercise if it’s not going to happen.”

Frank Taylor, governor at Eccleston Lane Primary School, said it appeared some schools are “running them like a business” due to balances rising year on year.

Mr Taylor raised the issue again in October.

He claimed struggling schools are being encouraged to balance the books when there are other schools that are “serial surplus hoarders”.

The schools forum was told that the DfE’s current stance is that local authorities should not intervene with an individual school’s balances unless it is “considerably excessive”.

Mr Taylor said: “Why have a clawback mechanism when you’re not going to use it?

“There’s clearly a need to use it. There’re schools with massive surpluses.

“Don’t promise a vehicle that can’t leave the garage. It just gives everybody false hope if they’re struggling.”

The DfE said it is supporting schools and head teachers, and local authorities, to “make the most of every pound”.

But the reality is the money can only be stretched so far, and schools are adamant they are at breaking point.

Cllr Joe Pearson, St Helens Council’s cabinet member for developing young people, said that unless the lack of funding is addressed, realistically the current problems are going to increase.

And as a governor of two schools, Garswood Primary School and Billinge Chapel End, Cllr Pearson is all too aware of the financial pressures facing schools.

“Previously there’s been no increase in funding to local authorities since 2010-11,” Cllr Pearson said.

“So, we’re playing catch-up in a way in that there’s a massive underfunding for schools.

“I’m a school governor and every time I sit down when we’re looking at budgets, we know in three years we’re going to have a massive deficit.

“So that’s where we are.”

Cllr Pearson said one of the consequences of the lack of funding is schools being forced to merge classes.

The Labour councillor said it is also a “great difficulty” to support children with additional needs.

Cllr Pearson said: “I think the principle we want to adopt is, where a child with a learning disability or special needs can be educated with a mainstream school, we would wish that to happen.

“That’s not always possible, but we would wish that to happen. And we would encourage head teachers I think to do that.

“And to be fair head teachers do their very best to do that to accommodate children in that way.”

Since 2018-19, funds have been allocated to schools via the national funding formula, which aims to address historic disparities in funding between local areas.

A transition period of two years was put in place to allow councils to continue to allocate funding based on local formulae.

This transition period was delayed last summer and the full roll-out, which will see the funding allocated centrally, is now expected in 2021.

Cllr Pearson said he is not convinced that central government dictating school budgets from London is a good idea.

But regardless of how the money is distributed, school leaders are still adamant that there simply is not enough money in the system to go around in the first place.

“The mood of head teachers is, they are upset, they’re disappointed,” Cllr Pearson said.

“They don’t feel they can do the job that they are there to do.

“They would like to see some resolution to the underfunding of schools and that is in the hands of central government.”

St Helens North MP Conor McGinn believes much credit should go to the head teachers in St Helens that have so far managed to mitigate the worst impact of a decade of cuts.

“The dedication and the hard work of teachers has been incredible given the pressures they have been under,” the Labour MP said.

“The leadership of our head teachers has mitigated the worst impact and effect of the cuts.

“But quite frankly you can’t take £2 billion out of schools, £1 billion out of early years provision and half a billion out of sixth form colleges and expect it not to have an impact.”

One of the things schools have become increasingly reliant on in recent years are contributions from parents through parent–teacher associations.

This is particularly prevalent at St Thomas of Canterbury.

Windle Labour councillor David Baines said it is “absolutely scandalous” that primary schools have been forced into a position where they have no choice but to make a public appeal for support.

“There are some things we should be able to take for granted, and properly-funded schools are one of them,” Cllr Baines said.

“Staff and governors should be able to focus entirely on providing the best possible education for our children, without the distraction of worrying about budgets.

“Pupils and parents deserve better than they’re getting under this government.”

The letters St Thomas of Canterbury sent in November included a template for parents and carers to sign with the intention of delivering to the Secretary of State for Education.

Hundreds of these letters have been returned to the school.

Mrs Hall, along with Mr McGinn and some of the school’s pupils, now intend to deliver the stack of letters to the Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street later this month.

For now, the Labour MP said he will do everything in his power to push the issue in Westminster, despite acknowledging the difficulty of doing so in the current political climate.

“Brexit is dominating proceeding at Westminster, but from my perspective, the every-day needs and concerns from people in St Helens are at the forefront of what I do,” Mr McGinn said.

“And this is right up there amongst them along with protecting our other public services.

“Policing has been a particular issue, as has been our NHS, so the important thing is from a Labour perspective is to hold the government to account on all of this.

“But I won’t deny that is difficult to raise these issues when everything is so dominated by Brexit.”

A spokesman for the DfE said that, since 2017, the government has provided every local authority more money for every pupil in every school.

“St Helens is receiving an increase of 4.7% per pupil for its schools in 2019-2020, compared to 2017-18 funding levels – an increase of £7.4 million when rising pupil numbers are also taken into account,” the DfE said.

“But we do recognise the budgeting challenges schools face and that’s why we’re supporting schools and head teachers, and their local authorities, to make the most of every pound.”