School budgets: Unions boosted by parents' concerns

By Hannah Richardson
BBC News education reporter in Cardiff

  • Published
NUT conference
Image caption,
The NUT conference is being held in Cardiff

There is no more familiar cry from a teaching union conference than "Stop Education Cuts Now".

So often has it been heard from your typical tub-thumping delegate, that it has begun to sound a little like white noise.

But this year, as teacher delegates met in Manchester and Cardiff for their annual conferences, something had changed.

As more information has come to light about the state of school budgets, the message has resonated further.

So what was once only emblazoned on delegates' T-shirts, has become a topic of polite dinner table conversation in many family homes.

As Lewisham delegate Cleo Lewis put it with absolute clarity: "I've had enough. It's just too much. Nothing is going to change by sitting around discussing."

Mobilised parents

The reality of significant cost pressures, in England's schools - ranging between 8% and 12%, depending on whom you believe - not to mention £3bn in efficiency savings, has penetrated parents' collective consciousness.

This is in part due to the NUT/ATL school cuts website and the attention the local press have given it, say the unions.

Image caption,
Cleo Lewis delivered her message with clarity

With web hits topping 400,000 and citations in more than 500 regional news stories, it has undoubtedly spread its message.

The interactive website provides an estimate of how much each school stands to lose as a result of budget shortfalls and the new schools funding formula.

Then it converts the figures into possible equivalent losses in teachers and support staff.

It has prompted even the most measured of parents to burst into the playground and tell their friends: "Apparently we're going to lose three teachers."

As a result parents, pushy and otherwise, have begun to mobilise alongside their children's teachers against what they see as unfair and unsustainable cuts.

Direct debits

When quizzed by journalists on whether teachers would strike over the cuts, general secretary of the NUT, Kevin Courtney, appeared to suggest it would not be necessary.

"There's nothing unethical about striking against these cuts. There will be demands for that sort of action that come up in all sorts of places," he said.

"But what we are seeing is huge numbers of parental meetings, with hundreds of parents. These are significant mobilisations of people."

The biggest, for as long as he could remember, he said.

And crucially, they are people not normally given to manning the barricades with placards and copies of the Socialist Worker stuffed in back pockets.

Instead, they are people from ordinary hard-working families, to coin a phrase.

Who's listening?

Families, who may be starting to resent padding-out suffering school budgets.

Take the Fair Funding for All Schools founder Jo Yurky, who addressed the NUT conference in Cardiff this weekend.

Image caption,
The NUT has threatened strike action over funding cuts in England's schools

The mother-of-two, and former Parliamentary ombudsman, confided that she was terrified of addressing delegates.

"I find it all a bit uncomfortable, public speaking," she told journalists, just minutes after making a rousing speech to the union.

Her self-consciousness took nothing away from her message. In fact, it only added to it.

But it was the content of her speech, and who she represents, that gives a new power to what the NUT and other teaching unions have been saying for some time.

Bail out

She described how schools have been asking parents to set up direct debits to plug huge deficits, sometimes amounting to several hundred thousand pounds.

The claim rings true with parents who've had those begging letters home from head teachers explaining what difficult times their children's schools are facing.

It provides a mirror image of the message head teachers have been setting out in open letters to their local papers, MPs and the education secretary over the last few months.

As Ms Yurky puts it, when head teachers speak, parents listen.

She expresses extreme frustration at the Department for Education's unwillingness to admit there is a problem, through its reiteration that school funding is at its highest ever level.

The DfE, however, is keen to show it is listening too.

Image source, PA
Image caption,
Ms Greening is keen to represent "ordinary working families"

It says: "We recognise that schools are facing cost pressures, and we will continue to provide support to help them use their funding in the most cost effective ways, so that every pound of the investment we make in education has the greatest impact."

But the parent campaigner goes on to say confidently; "When parents speak politicians listen."

It is not clear yet whether Education Secretary Justine Greening will find some hidden resources in the education budget to alleviate the deepening cash problems ahead.

Or whether she will turn to the chancellor and ask him for extra money ahead of the autumn statement.

But what the NUT, and other teaching unions, say is certain is that their message is being heard far beyond the packed conference hall.

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