Governors raised grave concerns about the “frightening” financial situation facing schools across Wales, warning that some are operating “hand to mouth”.
The Senedd's petitions committee took evidence on a 7,000-name petition – submitted by the chairs of governors' associations – calling for an urgent review of “inadequate” funding.
Martin Price, chair of Vale of Glamorgan school governors’ association, told MSs that schools in Wales are facing a dire financial situation.
Since 2010/11, schools have only received a 1.1 per cent real-terms increase in funding, which equates to a rise of 0.7 per cent per pupil, according to a research briefing.
Dr Price warned: “I do feel there isn’t enough understanding among Members of the Senedd and the wider public as to the situation facing Wales.
“Quite a proportion of schools in Wales are running on empty or effectively, in private sector terms, are bankrupt.”
He cautioned that some schools are potentially in breach of legal requirements towards pupils due to financial pressures.
He told the committee: “Not enough money is going into many – if not most – schools in Wales in order to deliver what their legal requirements are in terms of education.”
Dr Price cautioned that next year will be worse, and the year after worse again, as he called for greater transparency on funding formulas which he described as unfair and inequitable.
“What schools are doing is cutting back to the bare minimum they need to do by law and then overspending,” he said.
Matthew Gilbert, headteacher at Barry Island Primary School, described the financial pressures as frightening, saying: “I’ve had over 20 years in education and I’ve never experienced such difficulties with finance.”
He raised concerns about equality, saying it is difficult to provide one-to-one support given increasing numbers of pupils with complex needs amid constrained finances.
He said: “We have to set deficit budgets – otherwise we won’t be able to provide those children with one-to-one support.”
Mr Gilbert added: “We want to break deprivation, we want to enable children to read and write – and break that poverty gap … but, as it stands, the deficit situation is dire.
“It’s almost hand to mouth and the cupboard’s empty.”
Mr Gilbert told MSs that his school often chases small community grants – “which should be a luxury, not a necessity” – to prop up the education system.
David Blackwell, headteacher of St Richard Gwyn Catholic High School, Barry, said his budget has increased by 20 per cent over the past few years “which sounds promising”.
However, he explained that teaching costs have increased by 34 per cent and non-teaching staff by more than 22% – and that’s before accounting for inflationary pressures on energy.
The chair of the Vale’s school budget forum said: “I’ve got an extra 20 pupils so my budget should increase – but in real terms it has taken a significant, significant hit.”
Mr Blackwell also raised concerns about a “massive” recruitment and retention crisis, saying: “We’re seeing the quality and number of applicants dramatically decreasing….
“There are less people working in my school when the needs are greater than I’ve seen in the 23-24 years I’ve been working in schools.”
He told MSs that the average reading age of a child entering secondary school is two years lower than it was five years ago.
Mr Blackwell said his school has had to cut the number of option subjects at GCSE due to low staff numbers, reducing the breadth of the curriculum.
During the meeting on Monday, 13 November, he described the situation as “really sad” and warned that it is getting “increasingly worse”.
Mr Blackwell said similar schools to his own, which has a budget of £3.9m, can have budgets as low as £3.1m or as high as £4.9m.
He criticised the 54 per cent variance, saying there is a postcode lottery across the country.
The Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) has warned that schools are facing inflationary pressures of £177m and £114m in 2023-24 and 2024-25 respectively.
Laurence Matuszczyk, chair of Merthyr Tydfil School Governors’ Association, said 17 teachers and 28 learning support assistants in the borough lost their jobs this year.
Witnesses said it is becoming increasingly difficult to recruit governors with many resigning, saying they did not take up the role to make teaching and support roles redundant.