Subjects including German, French, art, drama and design technology could soon be shut off to many state school students as heads say they are being forced into cutting expensive and less popular lessons to address crippling deficits.
The vast majority of English state schools expect to be in the red by the next school year, pushed under by enormous energy bills and an unfunded pay rise for teachers.
Thousands of schools are now planning to make teachers and teaching assistants redundant or cut their hours. But unions and heads say that with schools forced to ramp up class sizes, subject choice in secondary schools will suffer as heads scrap courses that have smaller uptake and are less economical to teach.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Subjects we have always seen as culturally really important will increasingly become the preserve of private schools because state schools can’t afford to teach them.”
He told the Observer that subjects that attract fewer pupils at GCSE and A-level, including drama, art, German and French, would all be in danger of being axed, because “one teacher to 20 children won’t be viable any more”.
Subjects like design technology, which is expensive because schools have to buy materials and classes can’t be big for safety reasons, would also be at risk, he said.
He warned valuable subjects would vanish quietly. “Heads don’t want to put parents off by admitting they are cutting GCSE German because they can’t afford it. But it is happening.”
Will Teece, headteacher at Brookvale Groby Learning Campus, a secondary academy in Leicester, said: “We are certainly looking at our post-16 choices and which subjects with small groups and high staff costs we will have to lose.” He said: “You have to have someone in front of students so class sizes will increase. I don’t know how schools will manage if rooms aren’t big enough.”
Subjects where schools have to buy materials are also at risk. Photograph: Avril O’Reilly/Alamy
George McMillan, executive principal at Harris academy schools in Greenwich and Ockendon in Essex, said: “For A-level we are already in a position where to make subjects work financially you need at least 100 students in each year group. Anything that isn’t popular enough can’t run.”
He said many schools were already asking staff to teach subjects outside their specialism because of teacher shortages, and this would increase as a result of the funding crisis. “Science is often taught by PE teachers; computing, which has been challenging to find teachers in for many years, is taught by maths teachers, often reluctantly,” he said. “If that’s permanent it becomes soul destroying for staff and they leave.”
He said academies were terrified of being put in special measures by Ofsted for not offering a sufficiently broad curriculum, but there wasn’t enough money or staff to do this properly.
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He predicted that schools would try to save money by replacing a “really good experienced teacher” with someone just starting out.
But he warned that with the number of new trainees starting secondary initial teacher training down 23% this year compared with 2019, “even finding a beginning teacher is hard”.
Adam Watt, deputy pro vice chancellor and professor of French at Exeter University, said: “If the opportunities to develop language skills become the preserve of only those who can afford a private education, it will seriously diminish the potential of our future workforce.”
He argued that learning languages like French and German at school taught young people “communication skills, multi-tasking, flexibility of thought and, crucially, an awareness of and openness to difference”.
A spokesperson for the DfE said schools’ core funding this year included a cash increase of £4bn which will support them in delivering a “broad and balanced curriculum”.
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