Schools in funding crisis as demand for free school meals surges by 200%

Schools are struggling with soaring costs just as more of their pupils seek free school meals, Sarah Corker reports

Teachers picking pupils up from home who can’t afford the bus fare to school. Food banks operating from classrooms and delivering parcels to vulnerable students. Job clubs for unemployed parents.

Schools are increasingly becoming crisis centres for struggling families falling deeper and deeper into poverty - but headteachers are facing their own funding catastrophe.

ITV News gained exclusive access to one of Yorkshire’s largest academies, following staff and students through the summer holidays and into the Autumn term as the cost of living crisis intensified.

More than 700 children now qualify for free school meals at Carlton Bolling Academy in Bradford - that’s more than half of all pupils and an increase of 200% since 2018.

Jon Skurr, Executive Headteacher of the Carlton Academy Trust, told ITV News that schools are having to do more than ever to make sure students "aren’t going hungry and are able to learn", but government funding hasn’t kept pace with inflation meaning they are under increasing financial pressure. An unexpected and unfunded 5% pay rise for teachers announced by the government in the summer has sent wage bills spiralling. For the Carlton Academy Trust those salary increases equate to finding an extra £400,000 from existing budgets.

“We don’t bemoan the pay rises, we think they are very much needed, but there’s no money from central government to pay for it. It’s unsustainable,” said Mr Skurr.

The unfunded pay rise will take hundreds and thousands of pounds out of the school's budget, headteacher Jon Skurr says

At the same time, energy bills across the Trust’s five academies have already tripled and food bills are up nearly 20%. Even with healthy reserves and prudent financial management, there’s likely be some tough choices ahead this winter.

“We serve some of the most deprived students in the country, we’ve absorbed some of those cost increases, but we can’t afford to do everything, it may mean increased class sizes going forward,” Mr Skurr told ITV News.

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This part of west Yorkshire is one of the most deprived in England. It’s estimated more than 50 percent of children in Bradford East are living in poverty, that’s almost double the national average. Schools are becoming an extension of the welfare state. The safeguarding team has never been so busy fielding calls from worried parents on the brink of financial crisis - the academy ran out of food parcels in the first three weeks of term such was the level of need.

At times it seems as though safeguarding officer Amina Akhtar is more like a social worker.

Safeguarding officer Amina Akhtar explains that there is a "general anxiousness" within the community

She delivers 15 to 20 food parcels every week to the most vulnerable families and spends a large part of her working day outside of school making home visits.

“People who were making ends meet are now falling below the breadline. They are working all day and doing an evening job too and it’s still not enough,” she said.

"You can see the relief on their faces when you hand over the food parcels, and they think ‘thank god’,” Ms Akhtar told ITV News. It’s not just students and their families who are struggling with the rising cost of living, teaching support staff on low wages are even being given supermarket vouchers and other benefits by the school to help ends meet. Roy McQuaid was recently voted teaching assistant of the year. It’s a job he loves, but a typical salary for a TA ranges from between £15,000 and 19,000 a year, well below the average national salary.

Mr McQuaid says that this Christmas, he might have to choose between 'presents or surviving'

As a single dad, he works full time. However, his wages, which are topped up by working tax credit, aren’t stretching far enough.

“I’m terrified, I am struggling, my wages aren’t covering my bills anymore.”

“I’m not going to be able to afford Christmas presents this year. It might be a choice between getting presents and surviving. It’s not just me but lots of other families are in the same position,” Mr McQuaid said.

The Shadow Education Secretary Bridget Phillipson told ITV News that Headteachers are making impossible choices over ‘whether they can afford to pay staff or let staff go, or replace equipment that students need.”

Labour's Bridget Phillipson: 'It's becoming increasingly difficult for our schools just to manage'

The enormous challenges faced by schools across England has been exacerbated by frequent changes at the top of the Department for Education. Gillian Keegan is the fifth Education Secretary in four months.

In response to our investigation she said: "We always work hand in hand with schools and we always have these discussions. We actually have a scheme which is relatively new, where we have advisors that go in and help schools to look at their budgets and help them to see if they can make some savings or share some best practice.

"So if people are actually worried, then they should contact the Department [of Education] - that sort of help is available."

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan responds to ITV News' investigation

The government added that it’s providing an extra £4 billion pounds of funding to schools and help with discounted energy bills for six months.

Unions, headteachers and families are now calling for urgent action; in the worst-case scenario some headteachers are warning schools could be bankrupt within a year and are already having to choose whether to keep staff or children fed.