Headteachers forced to do menial tasks at unfilled rural schools

Some heads in England say they also do gardening and cleaning in schools to cut costs

More than four in 10 rural schools in England are undersubscribed and therefore facing significant budget shortfalls, forcing headteachers to multitask in a variety of roles to cut costs, according to a survey.

Of the 500 headteachers who responded to the survey, 42% said their school’s places had not been filled. This has a direct impact on funding, as each pupil brings additional money to a school.

Two-thirds (67%) said their budget was impinging on their running of the school. “This year I need to save £64k from a £285k budget,” one headteacher told researchers.

To save money, heads who took part in the survey by the Key – an information service used by half of schools in England – said they undertook multiple roles to keep their school running, including driving the minibus, doing the gardening, cleaning and lunchtime supervision.

“I’m the social worker,” said one. “Split-up parents contacting us to talk about the other parent can take up an hour of my morning. I’m on the roof getting down a shoe. I’m a taxi service; I drive the children to sports events. I’m also the dinner man. Until recently, I was the cleaner one day a week. Another female head has had to become an expert in electrics and drainage.”

More than 9 in 10 teach regularly; 81% are also the designated safeguarding lead, and 53% lead a department or curriculum area. “I will have to teach 4.5 days a week from September to balance the budget, which is just not achievable,” one head responded.

Another consequence of low pupil numbers is that many of the 5,000 rural schools in England have mixed-age classes. Of those surveyed, almost half (45%) said all their classes consisted of mixed-age groups, presenting additional challenges to teachers in rural areas.

Some heads described feeling under pressure because of increased “parent power”, and felt obliged to go to extra lengths to keep parents happy, so as not to lose any pupils to a neighbouring school.

One rural headteacher said: “There is often a need to walk a diplomatic tightrope with parents. Many schools are not at capacity, so if a relationship with a family breaks down, they often just move their children elsewhere.”

Others alluded to issues associated with “rural poverty”, with many families just below the eligibility threshold for free school meals and pupil premium – which brings additional funding to a school – but still struggling to get by.

Transport costs are also substantial in rural areas. More than a third of those surveyed (38%) had pupils who travel up to 10 miles to get to school. According to the report, many local families have been priced out of idyllic rural spots near schools by people retiring or buying second homes.

“Recently they built new ‘affordable’ housing locally, but it was £285,000 for a house,” one headteacher told researchers. “You can’t afford that if you are a farm labourer. It’s not affordable for families.”

Heads also complained that comparatively high salary costs put further strain on already stretched budgets because teachers in rural schools are often experienced, remaining in post longer than their teaching peers in urban areas because of fewer job opportunities. Almost half (48%) described their staff as “very experienced” – having taught for more than 10 years.

A Department for Education spokesperson said new national funding arrangements meant that a small rural primary school could attract up to £135,000 in funding to meet their fixed costs: “We recognise the importance of rural schools, the role they play in their communities and the challenges they face, which is why we have introduced a new factor in the national funding formula to recognise that and set aside £25m specifically to provide support these schools.”


Sally Weale Education correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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