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FOCUS: Governors lay bare £23m schools funding crisis

FOCUS: Governors lay bare £23m schools funding crisis

Tuesday 26 October 2021

FOCUS: Governors lay bare £23m schools funding crisis


Haute Vallée governors have handed back a poster with the Government's 'putting children first' pledge, after exposing a schools funding crisis which is putting vulnerable youngsters at risk, pushing teachers to the brink of burnout, and threatens to see arts slashed from the curriculum.

Appearing before the Children and Education Scrutiny Panel yesterday, current and former Chairs of the school’s Board of Governors Philip Le Claire and Phil Horsley revealed that headteachers had discovered non-fee-paying schools are being underfunded by £23m as they put together a plan to update the 1992 funding model some 18 months ago.

But the pair said they were left “speechless” when Education Minister Deputy Scott Wickenden told them at a long-awaited meeting last month that the current funding “pot is the pot” and that there were no plans to correct this.

They explained that Haute Vallée had for many years been operating with budgets slashed “to the bone” due to “gross underfunding”, and that the Board had been left with no choice but to allow the Headteacher Stuart Hughes to go over budget this year to avoid cuts to the curriculum.

“After we’ve paid the bills and the wages there’s no money left. We cannot buy school books, we cannot buy pencils,” Mr Le Claire explained, later adding that the school is already recycling paper and other resources as much as possible “to save as much money as they can.”

Video: The moment the Chair of Haute Vallée's Board of Governors handed back the 'putting children first' pledge.

The choice, he said, was stark – not having lights or heating on, cutting the curriculum or increasing class sizes to “unacceptable levels”.

“What do you do? There is no fat left. We are running absolutely lean.”

Some of the biggest impact, the Governors warned, would be felt by the school’s more vulnerable children and those with specialist educational needs.

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Pictured: Education Minister Deputy Scott Wickenden - seen here during a visit to Rouge Bouillon primary school was said to have told Haute Vallée "the pot is the pot" when funding concerns were raised.

Mr Horsley also claimed that governors were “lied to” by Education officials that a £70,000 plan draw up by the school create a specialist unit to bring down the high number of school exclusions for all Jersey students with “social, emotional and behavioural difficulties” would receive full support from Government.

Mr Le Claire explained that CYPES Director General Mark Rogers had “given an undertaking that this definitely would be funded”.

He said there was an “urgency” to the project at the time, with hopes that the programme would be in place before the summer holidays, but that the project, which would have by now been in motion for two to three years, was cancelled.

“Promises, promises – and they were all reneged on,” Mr Horsley said.

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Pictured: Children and Education Director General Mark Rogers was said to have "reneged" on a promise of £70,000-worth of funding for a specialist service for children with behavioural difficulties.

Elsewhere in the hearing, he lamented the state of some of the school's facilities, and explained that teachers were nearing burnout working "50 or 60 hours a week" due to short staffing and struggles to recruit.

While Mr Le Claire said he was “cross” to have to be airing the school’s “dirty laundry” in public, he said he said all official routes of engagement with Government had been exhausted. 

“We don’t know where to turn, but we know that if we don’t do something soon – as in, now – if we don’t address this funding deficit, then the children at Haute Vallée and at other schools will suffer and they won’t have the future that they are entitled to and deserve.”

Such anger culminated in the return of a poster of the Government’s ‘putting children first’ pledge – something Mr Le Claire said a Year 11 student had asked him to do.

Signed by Ministers, Director Generals and most States Members in 2018, the pledge included the offer of early help "to prevent risk and issues from escalating", work to "recruit and retain a child-centred, stable, highly professional workforce", and a commitment to "ensure that sufficient funding is available to be effective".

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Pictured: The Chief Minister at the launch of the 'putting children first' pledge in 2018. (John Liot/Skills Jersey)

Referring to a comment from Deputy Wickenden in which he queried whether the Government “should stop digging the roads up” to fund schools, Mr Le Claire retorted: “…Yes, we should stop digging the roads up if we have to, because the Government of Jersey have said you’re going to ‘put children first’. So you either need to do that, or change the slogan to ‘putting roads first’.”

Handing the poster to panel member and former Education Minister Senator Tracey Vallois, he added: “On behalf of all the children at Haute Vallée, I’d like to give this back to [the Government] because we don’t think it’s appropriate that it’s up on our walls because we don’t think that you’re putting children first."

Panel Chair Deputy Rob Ward said the hearing had made the challenges the school faces “painfully clear”, adding that the panel was “shocked by some of the evidence” and urging governors at other schools to get in touch with their own accounts.

Here, Express shares some of the hearing’s key themes…

Budget constraints

While the expert-reviewed funding model put forward by headteachers from across the island revealed States schools were £23m short, it did not include funding for Special Educational Needs (SEN) support or for Highlands College.

Mr Le Claire – himself the founder of Autism Jersey – said he was aware that the Government had conducted a specific review of SEN funding, but noted: “For some reason it hasn’t been published, and we can’t understand why, unless it’s to hide it because it’s got unpalatable news in it.”

He said that Haute Vallée had already cut as much as it could in a bid to balance its books and was now at a point where it was only able to continue its curriculum offering by going over budget. 

If things do not improve, the first casualty, the Governors lamented, would likely be the arts.

“We know that when there are cuts in schools it’s usually the arts that go first,” Mr Le Sueur said, before adding: “A curriculum without art and music and drama, it fails students… They don’t become the fully rounded human beings we aspire to produce.”

Staffing concerns

Staffing was described as a major concern.

According to the Governors past and present, Haute Vallée school is facing significant challenges in recruiting new staff, partly due to cost of living issues, and delays to advertising available posts.

“Are we in a crisis? We haven’t been able to recruit a geography teacher for this year so we’re one short and we know that next year we need an additional nine teachers. If the process is as slow and cumbersome as it’s always been, we’re not confident we’ll be able to get those nine teachers, as well as any vacant posts that arise between now and the end of the year,” Mr Le Claire said.

He also noted that facilities like housing and subsidies for NQTs were something private schools like De La Salle were able to offer, but not non-fee-paying schools.

Mr Le Claire further observed that current staff are at risk of burning out due to long additional hours staffing breakfast clubs and extracurricular activities, for which they receive no extra pay, unlike private schools.

But teaching staff weren’t the only concern – he said the school was short of administrators, and that there is a “real fear” the service will be centralised “and we end up with a second-class service” as a result.

English as a second language

One of Haute Vallée’s specific challenges is the large proportion of students attending with English as a second language – 46% - yet the school has received no funding for that area to date and is having to use part of its SEN budget to address it.

Governors said that they were aware that three CYPES officials had visited Madeira to investigate a potential support model, but the school never heard anything back.

More recently, they were invited to make a bid for £950-worth of funding – a sum they described as “laughable”. Mr Le Sueur observed that it was only “enough money to buy one Oxford school dictionary per four children”.

Facilities 

Underfunding has also had an impact on the school’s facilities.

While Mr Le Claire described the project to transform an old school bus into a library in conjunction with the prison as a “fabulous” project everyone was “proud” of, he reminded the panel that it wasn’t created on a whim: “We did it because we didn’t have a library.”

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Pictured: Haute Vallée's library is a converted former school bus - a project the Governors said arose primarily from necessity rather than creativity.

He noted that the canteen had barely enough seating to fit a whole year group, and likened the netball courts to an ice rink as they are “so slippery when they’re wet.”

More damningly, he said the retaining wall by the school’s ‘Horizon Unit’ – an area for children with autism and ADHD – was “structurally unsound”.

“The response from the department has been to put a fence around it,” he said.

Inequity

Particular concerns were raised around the fact that baseline funding for the students of fee-paying schools is around £2,000 more, despite being a less challenging demographic.  

“[Grainville’s Chair of the Board of Governors] echoed pretty much line for line my concerns and said they were having exactly the same conversations. It’s a generic problem. Underfunding is underfunding, inequity is inequity. You cannot say it’s right that a student at JCG or Victoria College gets £2,000 a year more spent on them than a student at Haute Vallée or Grainville – that’s fundamentally wrong in everybody’s book,” said Mr Le Claire.

“Everybody should have the same baseline funding, then you can start looking at the additional extra-curricular stuff. When you’ve got children who – lots of the children at Haute Vallée, and they are incredible young people, they are absolutely incredible, I’m so proud to be the Chair of the Board of Governors and I feel very disloyal saying these things out loud, I really do, but they come from some really challenging backgrounds and home life and we’re giving them an opportunity to break free from that, break free from the poverty trail and get a decent education, become the skills of the future, become our politicians, our doctors, our engineers, all of those things that we need.

“But if we’re not going to fund that, what are we doing? Are we saying to them, ‘You need to go back on the scrap heap. We don’t care’?

“We cannot keep doing this to these young people, they are the future of Jersey.”

Vulnerable children

The Governors noted that the school was supporting many children from disadvantaged backgrounds, and was providing "hundreds of meals" per week through a breakfast club scheme funded by a local supermarket, rather than Government. "Otherwise they wouldn't have breakfast."

Perhaps most damning were the Governors' comments around children with behavioural difficulties and/or difficult home lives.

With a school counsellor who is already "way beyond capacity", the pair argued that what is really needed is social workers that operate within the school.

"One of the principles [of the scrapped £70,000 behavioural unit project] was getting social workers into the school environment so there was this continuity.

"What we’re seeing is that there's that classic gap where someone has told their story to so many people, they just stop telling their story. The teachers are there and the school is there - if you get the social workers involved, they can join up, there’s then continuity across the holiday.

"On the behaviour panel, what we often see is that we start seeing the behaviour spike prior to the holidays, and it’s because of fear – it’s because of fear, it’s because they’re frightened. Despite the fact they’re kicking against it… it’s a cry for help that they’re going to lose that safe environment knowing they’re going into the school holidays.

"We see these heartbreaking examples where the school is screaming saying, ‘Help us now, help us now, this is coming,’ and they see that child failed time and time again. Shame on us. We’ve got to do better."

While they registered their disappointment that the £70,000 project was never supported, they were clear that they fully supported new efforts to create an 'intensive support service'.

Is anyone listening?

Mr Le Claire explained that it took months before the Governors' requests to talk through concerns with Education officials were answered.

He said that neither the Chief Minister nor the Education Minister responded to his emails back in May, and that it was only on 22 September that he was able to meet with Deputy Wickenden and Education Group Director Sean O'Regan, alongside Headteacher Stuart Hughes.

Following the meeting, and Deputy Wickenden's "gobsmack[ing]" comments that "the pot is the pot", Mr Le Claire said the pair were left feeling that the Department was not giving the "level of seriousness" and attention to the issues raised that they demanded - despite the Government's 'putting children first' pledge.

“In spite of, not because of”

Despite all these challenges, Mr Le Claire and Mr Horsley were at pains to praise students and stress how hard staff were working to help them progress.

Such efforts, they said, had led to a marked improvement in attainment, with the percentage of students achieving 5 A* to C GCSE grades increasing from 23% in 2018 to 64% this year.

However, the pair explained that this progress was not "sustainable" given current conditions at the school.

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Pictured: Haute Vallée students' attainment has leapt up over the past three years thanks to the efforts of dedicated staff - but the Governors warned that this continued growth is not sustainable without additional support.

"If I was a private company and I was the Managing Director of this private company, I’d probably be recommending to the board of shareholders to close it down because it’s not profitable and it’s going to go 'bang'. We can’t do that, because it’s not a company. This is children’s futures… We can’t just close it because it’s not working. It’s working in the outputs but it’s working in spite of the funding."

"That's an interesting sentence," Deputy Ward chimed in, "It's working 'in spite of' not 'because of' [Government]."

"Maybe that should be the new Government slogan," Mr Le Claire later quipped.

The time is now

Current Chair of the Board of Governors Mr Le Claire emphasised that the issue was not only rearing its head now because of covid - it had been longstanding, with Mr Le Claire remembering discussions on similar problems he had as a parent-governor back in 2004.

However, the problems have become more pressing now as the population - and therefore class sizes - continue to grow, stretching budgets further.

Due to a high birth rate on the island in 2012, the school is expecting to see its population grow in the coming years from 600 to 750 - a situation likely to be echoed in other local schools.

Asked how long he thought the school could continue as it is, Mr Le Claire responded: "I think it's a taut line now."

Mr Horsley added that the already stretched staff "might say, 'We'll carry on forever.'"

He added, however: "They’ve gone into the industry because they care, so maybe they will keep going, but is it fair to ask them to? No."

What does the Government say?

The Education Minister will be appearing before Scrutiny next week to address some of the concerns raised, but Express contacted the Government to ask if it wished to address any of the comments before then.

A statement from a spokesperson read: "The Government of Jersey is committed to putting children first. Since 2019, the States Assembly has voted an additional £35 million per year for the range of services that support the island's children and families.

"The Education Reform Programme, underpinned by an independent funding review in 2019, is providing £11.6m additional, recurrent funding by 2024. This is designed to tackle the structural deficit in some school budgets and to release new investment across the school system to address identified gaps in provision. This extra funding has been determined by evidence from the independent review, and was agreed by the Council of Ministers and the States Assembly in 2020.

"As part of the reform programme, a new funding model will ensure a transparent approach to funding schools from September 2022. Head teachers will continue to be engaged in this work and the new model will be kept under review.

"The Government is also committed to taking forward the findings of this year’s inclusion review to determine the funding that will be needed to meet a growing demand from children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEN&D). The draft Government Plan 2022-25 proposes an additional £678,000 in 2022, rising to £2.1 million in 2025, to tackle demographic pressures, including those relating to SEN&D.

"The draft Government Plan 2022-25 recognises that additional resources are needed to support a small, but significant, group of young people with complex needs. The plan proposes additional investment of £400,000 for an Intensive Youth Support Service that would operate across schools, social care, youth and criminal justice services to ensure a wrap-around approach to meeting needs. The Minister will ask officials to continue their dialogue with schools, including Haute Vallée, so the approach is informed by the experiences of head teachers and their staff.

"When schools resume after half-term, the Chief Minister and Minister for Children and Education will continue their dialogue with Haute Vallée, and other schools, about how best to put children first."

CLICK HERE to watch yesterday's hearing in full.

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Comments

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Posted by Private Individual on
Perhaps if the government hadn't squandered over £150 million on a hospital project they might have the money to educate the children.

As far as working 50-60 hours a week..... welcome to the taxpayer's world.

Most people are working this just to make ends meet in the private sector without golden handshake pensions and 7 weeks a year off on holiday.

We pay our taxes that pay the teacher's wages!

So stop whining and get on with the job.
Posted by Keith Marsh on
Yet another problem for this dreadful Government.
Budgeting is not difficult, and I am sure that Head Teachers and Governors of each school can provide the required information. All Ministers and their Civil Service staff need to do is to collate such information.
The Chief Minister, plus Treasury then have to find the required funds; always checking to see that the sums requested make sense and are lowest possible.
Now GET ON WITH IT and do as you promised "put children first"
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