A protest march, ignited by a simmering frustration over schools’ funding needs, has seen headteachers unite in an unprecedented plea direct to the doors of Downing Street.
This was an unlikely sight. Education leaders from across the nation, gathering nervously in the capital to march on Westminster, waving placards and school whistles. But when an army of educators is knocking on the doors of power, says Sheffield headteacher Cathy Rowland, it is time to listen.
“What we have here today is a collective centuries of experience,” she said, awed, as a sea of protesters gathered. “But we have to speak out - we are at a cliff.
“And if we don’t do something we will simply be forgotten.”
Mrs Rowland is one of well over 1,000 headteachers nationwide who has travelled to the capital to present a petition to Parliament over schools funding. Each one represents a setting feeling the pressure financially, amid a rise in pupil numbers and special needs, and in the wake of revised funding formulas and austerity support.
On the train to London, Mrs Rowland shows pictures of her school library, flooded last Friday. Seven plastic buckets sit in the corner, catching drips from the leaky roof.
“This is the reality of cuts,” she said. “I look at the roof, and I really don’t know how we can fix that. In an affluent area like ours, parents can raise money. But they shouldn’t have to.
“And I’m not alone in this. I can see it, not just in my school or my city, but nationwide. Over the next two or three years, I don’t see how I can balance my budget.”
Her school, Dobcroft Infants, has seen cuts in every area, she said. In office staffing, in teaching assistants, in school buildings and grounds and stationary.
It is an Outstanding school, in an affluent area. She can speak out, she admits, because it is highly sought-after, oversubscribed. She isn’t at risk of losing prospective parents.
In many schools, she adds, subjects are being cut. Others are forced to take larger class sizes of 32 pupils, because it brings in more money.
“We’ve trimmed all the edges,” she said. “And while we’ve got a wonderful staff, everybody is having to do so much more with so much less.
“Teaching staff come to work to do their best they can for the children. That’s what gets them up in the morning. But they can only do it for so long, because of the stress and the strain.”
As headteachers begin to gather at Westminster, they are keen to voice their anger. One of the key frustrations is over comments from the Department of Education that it is spending more in education than ever before. That may be, they argue, but there has never been greater pressure - or demand - on that funding for schools.
One deputy head, of a Rochford secondary, says her school has lost £750,000 over the last two years and yet is still told it has more. Another headteacher, from Kent, says her role has seen an effective downgrade as she steps in to teach and paper over the cracks. A third school is looking at how it create new cash streams, such as after school clubs.
At Dobcroft Infants, Mrs Rowland says, there is now a system in places so that parents can make donations to buy essentials like glue or whiteboards.
“For the first time ever, parents have said they will pay us money each month,” she said. “I don’t feel comfortable taking it, but I do feel more comfortable in that it helps us out.
“When you care passionately about educating children, it hurts to make decisions that are less palatable,” she adds.
“What keeps me awake at night is the though of how on earth I can do what I need to do, without putting children, and staff, at risk.
“It almost makes me laugh, when I look back at the heady days of 2010 when I thought I was poor. I’ve never, in 18 years as a headteacher, seen anything like this.”