Schools in England face mounting pressure to balance the books

The financial pressures schools face make for hard choices in England’s classrooms. After spending two days at Felpham Community College in Bognor Regis, I have a better understanding of what’s at stake.

A large comprehensive in West Sussex, Felpham has 1,320 pupils, many of whom struggle with mental health problems.

One in eight of the pupils at England’s secondary schools now have a diagnosable mental health condition, and Felpham is doing all it can to support the dozens of children suffering in their community.

But the team employed to help the most vulnerable at Felpham is a luxury at a time when financial pressures are mounting and one in three secondary schools are running in deficit.

Felpham’s specialised Learning Support Unit is also at risk if the school budget has to be cut again as it was only 18 months ago.

Pupils at Felpham Community College. Credit: ITV News

The Unit is a safe haven for the increasing number of pupils overwhelmed at times by the stresses of school life; a sanctuary for those who sometimes struggle.

"I wouldn’t even be at school if I couldn’t come here," one 12-year-old boy told me. "This is the only place I feel safe."

All the staff I meet are committed to student welfare, above and beyond helping the pupils in their charge fulfil their academic potential.

But it’s not exactly what they signed up for: "We are now social workers, case workers, mental health managers as well as teachers," says PE teacher Tom James.

Sally Turner, is a year group manager, and her sole role is to offer emotional support to vulnerable pupils.

She tells me many of her pupils - some as young as 11 - are arriving at the school gates with high levels of anxiety, eating disorders and self-harm, and that most have to wait months for professional help outside school.

"We are a lifeline," she says. "We are having to do more with less because of the funding cuts and its getting more difficult every week, every month, every year as the needs of the pupils increase."

Sally Turner, a year group manager, says many children are turning up to school with high levels of anxiety. Credit: ITV News

Her observations confirm official findings this month from the Public Accounts Committee which concluded only three in 10 children with a mental health condition received any NHS-funded treatment at all, and most of the others faced unacceptably long waits.

Headteacher Mark Anstiss reflects that after 30 years in teaching he is worried:

"I have nothing left to cut. Subjects have already gone; classes have got bigger and if I have to cut again - the support staff are at risk and it will be our most vulnerable pupils who will suffer if they go."

Mark isn’t alone: In a recent survey of 2,000 head teachers across England 94% said they felt they were now offering services which used to be provided by the local authority - in particular behavioural therapy and counselling.

With three quarters also saying they expect to be in deficit next year, head teachers like Mark see a future where those pupils most at risk could lose the most.

Before I leave Felpham I meet Diana, a sixth former, who tells me her future is full of hope. Diana, who suffered from depression and anxiety as a young teenager, is now in recovery and planning a future in nursing.

But she tells me she wouldn’t have made it without the extra help she got at school. "I owe them everything. There was no outside support available for me that helped."

The Government says it is committed to improving mental health provision in schools.

Last month it announced an initiative to put new mental health support teams for children in 25 areas this year after a £20.5 billion investment in the NHS.

Minister of State at the Department for Education and the MP for Bognor Regis, Nick Gibb says funding has been provided for "every pupil in every school".

"Of course schools do have to be efficient, tax payers expect that, and that's why we are helping schools, particularly those schools who are running a deficit."

He added: "We take mental health issues extremely seriously, they aren't mental health professions, teachers are teachers of geography or maths and so on.

But many heads remain deeply worried about funding, claiming that seven years of budget cuts have led to financial crisis in their schools

School funding will be addressed in the Spending Review later this year.