Headteachers forced to mend desks and unblock toilets after cuts in England (2024)

Headteachers are being forced to mend desks and unblock toilets themselves after sacking school caretakers in the wake of budget cuts, the Guardian has been told.

School leaders in England said they could not afford to employ caretakers, and were having to change lightbulbs and clear playgrounds of dead rats themselves.

Amanda Richards, the headteacher of Sytchampton primary in Worcestershire, said her school “literally can’t afford” a permanent caretaker, leaving her and other staff to move heavy equipment and make emergency repairs to keep the school running.

“I’m 53 this year; I’m not built for lifting and shifting, to be honest with you. But there isn’t anyone else to do it,” Richards said.

She added: “Just before half-term, the toilets in our new building were blocked. So when that happens during the day, it’s me who puts the marigolds on and goes down to the toilets with the plunger and tries to unblock it as best as I can. That’s a fairly regular occurrence.

“With regard to things like DIY or maintenance for the building, we don’t have anyone to do that. So we either do it ourselves, or we save up bigger jobs for someone to come in and do, because we just couldn’t afford somebody to be on hand regularly as a member of staff.

“And because we’re a rural school we get quite a few dead animals on the playing field – dead rats, moles and voles. Obviously, we can’t have children coming across those at playtime.

“So when you are up to your elbows in the toilets, cleaning up poo, you’re thinking: this isn’t what I signed up for.”

A survey of 400 school leaders in England by the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) found that Richards was not alone. One in six schools said they could no longer afford to employ a caretaker, while nearly half of schools that did have cut their hours.

As a result, 75% of school leaders said they had to “frequently” carry out jobs that would normally have been done by a caretaker.

Paul Whiteman, the NAHT’s general secretary, said: “School leaders are already working intolerably long hours, and there is no way we should be expecting them to take on other roles in the school as well.

“Some of the things we are hearing school leaders are having to deal with – unblocking toilets, plumbing, moving heavy furniture – are, of course, vital tasks. But they need doing by skilled caretakers and site staff. School leaders simply do not have the time to do them, nor should they be expected to.”

A survey published by the Sutton Trust last week found that 46% of all schools in England were cutting back on support staff because of financial difficulties.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We are increasing school funding to £60.7bn this year, the highest level ever in real terms per pupil, to support school leaders meet their costs.

“Every school will attract a per pupil increase in funding, and the national funding formula makes sure that funding is distributed fairly based on the needs of each school and their pupils.”

However, caretakers have become rare in small primary schools, where budget pressures have been made worse by falling numbers of children enrolling, cutting per-pupil funding.

Lesley Roberts, the head of Streatley Church of England primary school in west Berkshire, has 100 pupils and said she relied on the goodwill of volunteers and her staff for tasks such as gardening.

“It used to be quite normal for most schools to have caretakers, but nowadays it seems only secondary schools can afford them, and large primaries,” Roberts said.

Most schools in England facing real-terms cuts since 2010 thanks to Tories, analysis showsRead more

“We just don’t have the funding for a caretaker, and while we do these tasks and make sure there is no detriment to pupils, they certainly weren’t in the job description and I’m not sure how many people would take them on.”

Richards said Sytchampton school, with 88 pupils, had only herself and the school’s business manager – who is also its receptionist – to carry out safety responsibilities.

“I don’t have a deputy; I don’t have assistant heads. I still have to do the same job as a head would in a large school that has all those other people they can delegate roles to, and I have to do them to the same standard,” Richards said.

“Having to be dealing with operational things and caretaking duties is a big frustration when you’ve got so many other responsibilities.”

Whiteman said funding would be a key issue at the union’s annual conference in Newport later this week, with headteachers highlighting how hundreds of school buildings are “slipping into disrepair”.

Cindy O’Sullivan, the headteacher of Gosden House school in Surrey, for children with special educational needs, said its main building was Grade II-listed and 230 years old.

“The building and grounds are picturesque, but it is also rickety, decrepit, and woefully out of date, with leaky pipes, a sky-high heating bill, blocked drains, and rotting single-pane windows. We don’t have the budget to maintain the building and ensure children continue to receive the outstanding 21st-century education they deserve,” she said.

Headteachers forced to mend desks and unblock toilets after cuts in England (2024)

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