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An Open Letter:
Our nation’s teachers, pupils and parents will be looking ahead nervously to the first few weeks of the school term. Many will be fearing a repeat of the last academic year – plagued with constant disruption, lost learning and relentless Covid case rises.
You would think any responsible government minister would learn from their mistakes; by improving ventilation, granting catch-up support for students, boosting pupil premium allocations for the worst-off children, and providing extra mental health support. But the primary school headteachers I have spoken with fear they won’t be able to meet pupils’ growing safeguarding and financial needs within their hugely stretched budgets.
House of Commons Library figures reveal how schools in Warwick and Leamington are among the worst funded in England. As of 2020/21, schools in the constituency rank 526th worst funded out of 533 constituencies across England. To make matters worse, the data shows that per pupil funding has been cut by 8% since 2013/14. And last week the Institute for Fiscal Studies revealed per pupil funding is lower now than it was in 2009/10 – at the beginning of the so-called austerity era.
This is a travesty. Schools recovering from 18 months of disruption – during the greatest public health crisis the UK has ever seen – are expected to cope on austerity budgets. Teachers tell me extra costs include those for additional heating due to increased ventilation, spend on clinical waste disposal, staff cover, cleaning and maintenance, and extra academic and pastoral support for pupils after a year of disruption.
I have written to Warwickshire County Council regarding carbon dioxide monitors and additional ventilation measures – asking whether more support can be granted for schools’ post-pandemic recovery. I also urge leaders to appeal to the government for more funding to assist hard-pressed schools – whose poorest children will inevitably suffer the most without increased funding and additional safety measures.
In the House of Commons, I have for months been calling on the government to improve ventilation in our universities and schools. The pilot study for ventilation measures in schools must result in sweeping enhancements and a significant cash injection – particularly to those in historically underfunded areas like Warwick and Leamington. One headteacher told me that keeping windows open in schools – notwithstanding the increased costs of heating – is simply not a sustainable strategy.
In fact, the Education Secretary has broken yet another of his promises. He pledged that all schools would be fitted with carbon dioxide monitors by the beginning of term. But the headteachers I spoke to have assured me they are yet to be fitted. And these monitors will do nothing to improve ventilation, with the costs of any necessary adaptations for rooms with poor airflow left for schools to shoulder. Germany has already spent the equivalent of £452million on improving ventilation in public buildings – while Wales has committed £6million in schools and universities. We are hopelessly behind – as we have been throughout the pandemic.
The government has known ventilation is a major problem for more than a year. And surely it must now be aware that schools are a primary vector of the virus and will need help to avoid the same sharp case rises being seen in Scotland after pupils returned. Schools must be granted additional funding to make them safe as quickly as possible.
One Leamington headteacher told me: “I have huge concerns with how we are expected to meet the increasing needs of pupils within our existing budgets.
“If you look at what the additional money equates to, it is a joke.
“Health and wellbeing needs have increased among pupils, staff and parents.
“There are increased safeguarding concerns and the work that goes with this.
“Increased cleaning and maintenance costs, staff cover, provision of additional school meals, signing up to remote learning packages, additional resources, I could go on.
“Extra ventilation measures would be superb as keeping all windows and doors open just isn’t practical.”
Another primary headteacher in Leamington called for more funding to help schools through a deeply uncertain period.
They said: “Schools in Warwick and Leamington should have received a higher proportion of funding to cover costs incurred.
“There are raised costs due to increases in heating – but the greater cost however is the amount of supply cover that is needed to cover staff off isolating or with illness related to Covid.”