They’re angry, they’re eloquent – and they’re no longer willing to sit quietly in the classroom.
Eight consecutive years of real-term funding cuts in England have placed headteachers on the frontline of the battle against austerity. Traditionally conservative and apolitical figures have become radical and outspoken campaigners who are prepared to risk repercussions in order to hold the government to account and shine a light on the impact that austerity has had on their schools.
This week many of them will take time away from their new, additional unpaid roles as school cleaners, catering managers, caretakers, gardeners, IT technicians, teaching assistants and deputy heads to attend the annual conference of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT).
We asked three how austerity had changed their roles and what triggered them to speak out publicly against the cuts.
Emily Proffitt, Tittensor First School, Stoke-on-Trent
Photograph: Peter Rogers Photographic
“To cut costs, I’ve taken on the roles of catering manager, premises manager, safeguarding lead and deputy, as well as head. I’ve put rubber gloves on and cleaned toilets at the school. I’ve [tended] the school garden. I’ve managed catering logistics. I’ve spent part of my Easter holidays in school, taking stock of deliveries, with my young children.
“I’m not business trained but, to balance the books, I’ve had to become business-minded. Day to day, my job now consists of managing safeguarding, overseeing health and safety, and dealing with whatever goes on in school. All the paperwork has to be done in my own time. It takes its toll in terms of sleepless nights and strain on my family.
“I knew there were funding issues locally. But at the NAHT conference last May, after hearing from headteachers across the UK, I realised it was a national issue. And I thought: why should we sit quietly, nodding and smiling? Actually, we have a responsibility to the children we teachto speak out. These children deserve better.
“Marching on Downing Street with other headteachers in September, collectively saying we need more funding, was a turning point for me. I spoke with the media that day. I wanted people to realise that headteachers from completely different schools in completely different parts of the county were experiencing the same things.
“A lot of teachers are fearful if they do speak out there will be repercussions. Personally, I do find it very nerve-racking. But you take the risk because you care. By speaking out, we’re trying to make things better.”
Clem Coady, Stoneraise School, Cumbria
“More headteachers are speaking out, because we no longer feel we are being listened to. There used to be a great respect for my profession from politicians, but that seems to have diminished now.
“I’ve started doing every role I can possibly do at my school to avoid making teachers and support staff redundant. For example, I’ve ended our maintenance contract and picked up that work. I’ve fixed cupboard doors, leaky taps and door handles. I’ve painted the school twice, inside and out. I’ve cut hedges, pruned shrubs and done tree surgery work. I’ve cleaned up sick and unblocked toilets – every member of staff has.
“I’ve reformatted computers. I’ve built and designed the school website. I’ve taken on all the HR work. I also spend at least 90 minutes every day working as a senior teaching assistant, because I know the children in that class need additional support.
“I find it all exhausting. I do it because it needs to be done, for the kids, and we can’t afford it otherwise.
“In March 2017 we didn’t have enough in the bank to pay staff their wages. Money we were promised for children with special needs hadn’t arrived. I decided: I’m not dealing with this quietly. I’m going to speak out and make sure everybody knows the difficulties schools are facing.
“We organised public meetings in Cumbria, invited all local politicians and relayed what was happening, how support for vulnerable pupils was being cut and class sizes were increasing. That led to two public demonstrations in Cumbria that I spoke at. Afterwards I was invited to speak to MPs. I’ve met both Jeremy Corbyn and Damian Hinds, the secretary of state for education.
“You can do these meetings privately, but there comes a point where, if nothing changes, you’ve then got to use other means. I must have done around 50 media interviews over the past two years. As a result, I’ve been trolled on the internet and called ‘Jeremy Corbyn’s love-child’. My local MP has also written to me to ‘express his disappointment’ over my approach to school funding. But if we don’t speak out, nothing is going to change.”
Jules White, Tanbridge House School, Sussex
Photograph: Teri Pengilley/The Guardian
“I started the campaign group, Worth Less? in 2015 when I heard a bloke from the Department for Education (DfE) on the local radio saying schools had never had it so good and there was more money in education than ever before. I thought, what a load of crap, you’re completely disconnected from what schools are facing. I’m running an outstanding school and struggling to pay the bills. We haven’t got enough money or teachers. Support services are being cut in social care, mental health, speech and language … It’s never been more difficult.
“I emailed the local radio presenter and said: ‘I’ll go on and tell the truth about what’s happening.’ I did, and felt better for it. Then I talked to other local headteachers about writing a joint letter to parents and carers at our schools. It was like pulling teeth – there was so much fear out there among headteachers about putting their head above the parapet and presenting their school in a bad light. We ended up talking about semicolons.
“But I managed to get everyone to agree.
“We got the message out there that all headteachers are singing from the same hymn sheet. The Worth Less? campaign grew. Now, when we send out campaign emails and actions, I estimate we can reach around 7,000 headteachers across nearly 70 local authorities. And when we send a letter to parents about school funding, like we did in March, we can reach up to 3.5 million families.
“The government is used to headteachers being very conservative and conciliatory. We are not normally a rebellious group. But we’re not stupid. We know when we’re being treated like fools. Headteachers today are holding the DfE to account. We’re fighting for our pupils, families and local communities.
“ I have never been a member of a political party. I feel uncomfortable campaigning and get anxious every time I speak to the media. I also feel intimidated when I challenge politicians, who are ultimately my boss, and they talk about me personally on the BBC.
“But, at the same time, I feel proud of what Worth Less? is doing, how it is mobilising and energising headteachers, and the support the campaign has received. We are working together, and we are more empowered than ever before.”
has been cut from sixth-form college funding since 2010, according to figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies
was the average deficit of English maintained secondary schools in 2016-17, rising from £292,822 in 2010-11, according to the Education Policy Institute
has been cut from school budgets since 2015, according to the combined teacher unions campaign, School Cuts coalition
of schools are continuing to face billions in budget cuts and have less money than ever before, says School Cuts
of budgets will be spent on cumulative costs – including pay, national insurance and pensions – in 2019-20, up from 3.4% in 2016-17, say unions
schools will not receive enough extra funds to meet teachers pay rises for 2019-20, according to the Education Policy Institute