THREE quarters (74 per cent) of primary school headteachers report having to reduce the number of teaching assistants at their school this year, according to new polling. This is despite increases in pupils with Special Educational Needs, with an increase of 19 per cent needing extra support in schools since 2019.

The survey of 1,282 teachers, conducted by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) for the Sutton Trust reveals a worsening picture of schools funding, with growing staff cuts along with reductions in spending for a range of activities in schools.

The proportion of senior leaders reporting cuts in teaching staff (32 per cent), teaching assistants (69 per cent) and support staff (46 per cent) has increased since 2023. While reports of cuts to teaching assistant posts were highest in primary schools, more secondary school senior leaders report cuts to teaching (38 per cent) and support staff (51 per cent). Schools in the North East were the most likely to have reduced teaching staff, at 45 per cent compared to between 16 and 36 per cent in other regions.

The proportion of schools cutting spending on trips and outings (50 per cent) and sports and other extracurricular activities (27 per cent) is at the highest level since the Sutton Trust’s polling began in 2017, indicating mounting funding pressures across the board. Headteachers in primary schools were the most likely to report cuts in sports and extracurricular activities, with almost a third reporting this (29 per cent). Over half (51 per cent) of school leaders report cuts to IT equipment, with the highest levels again in primary schools, at 53 per cent compared to 36 per cent of those in secondary schools.

The proportion of senior leaders reporting using pupil premium funding to plug gaps elsewhere in their school’s budget has reached 50 per cent in primary schools and 47 per cent among all senior leaders, up from 42 per cent and 41 per cent respectively last year, and the highest seen in this polling since the question was first introduced in 2017. Pupil premium is extra funding provided to schools to support disadvantaged pupils.

Reflecting the deterioration of funding for the National Tutoring Programme (NTP) this year, the use of NTP funding in schools was down slightly on last year, with 47 per cent of senior leaders saying they used it over the last year for either tuition partners, academic mentors or for school-led tutoring sourced locally, compared to 52 per cent in 2023. The NTP was set up in the wake of the pandemic to help pupils catch up with lost learning. Although gaps in attainment between the most and least disadvantaged pupils are now at their widest in more than a decade, the government has failed to commit any dedicated funding for the NTP in the next academic year.

The Sutton Trust has called for a new national strategy to close the attainment gap, including a fully-funded tutoring programme targeted to disadvantaged pupils, tackling the teacher recruitment and retention crisis, reforming the national funding formula to ensure schools facing the highest needs have adequate funding, and restoring Pupil Premium funding to previous levels in real terms.

Sir Peter Lampl, Founder of the Sutton Trust and Founder of the Education Endowment Foundation, said: “The erosion of schools funding coupled with rising costs is having a major impact on the ability of schools to provide the support that low-income students need. It’s disgraceful that increasing numbers of school leaders are having to cut essential staff and essential co-curricular activities. The situation for primary schools in particular, is one of rapid deterioration, with half of them having to use funding to plug gaps that should be used for poorer pupils.

“It’s extremely short sighted to remove funding for the National Tutoring Programme when half of schools are using it, and when there is extensive evidence that it works. The government’s rhetoric on education being a priority is a sham. School funding is inadequate and has to be urgently reviewed.”

Commenting on the new findings, Daniel Kebede, General Secretary of the National Education Union, said: “Primary schools play a critical role in the education journey of young people, but their hands are being tied by real-terms funding cuts. It is shocking that three quarters are having to reduce numbers of teaching assistants, just to make ends meet. The Government’s failure to properly fund support-staff pay deals is what lies at the heart of this.

“Successive surveys have shown that schools across the country are having to drop resources and cut staffing to the bone in order to survive. This repeatedly falls on deaf ears, however, and the Government allows it not only to continue but to worsen.

“After 14 years of chronic Conservative cuts, 70 per cent of schools in England have less funding in real terms than in 2010. One in eight local-authority-maintained schools were in deficit in 2022-23, the highest number on record since schools took control of their own bank balances in 1999. It is striking, too, that the Sutton Trust’s latest survey finds that half of schools are redeploying pupil premium money to plug gaps elsewhere. Taken together, this is a clear indication that something has gone seriously wrong with school funding.

“We are also far away from having the right level of SEND support to meet demand, thanks again to short-sighted cuts and the starvation of local authority services through inadequate funding. A third of members told us recently they have no behaviour support team whatsoever, a quarter have no access to an educational psychologist or CAMHS. Schools are having to pick up the pieces when referrals get stuck in a queue or are rejected. Make do and mend is not the answer to the crisis in SEND funding.

“This Government is not serious about education. It must wake up to the reality in schools up and down the country and provide the funding that is needed to allow schools to fully deliver the service they want to provide and that parents rightly expect.”

* Read: School Funding and Pupil Premium 2024 here.

* Sources: The Sutton Trust and National Education Union