The school where cuts are pushing teachers

Thursday morning. Ordinarily, this leafy street in south Londonwould be teeming with life, as boys clad in black blazers and striped ties make their way to school. Today, the road is uncharacteristically quiet.

It is the 13th day of strike action since November by teachers at Forest Hill School for Boys in Lewisham, and most of the 1,400 pupils are at home again. Their teachers are protesting against staff cuts designed to save the school £1.3m. Fifteen teaching jobs are being cut from September, more than 20 support staff have already gone, and the head teacher is now grappling with a rash of resignations from disillusioned teachers who want out.

A small group of striking teachers gather at the school gate. A few boys amble into the building for year 10 exams, music practice or a trip to Whitstable, as a van arrives with placards and a union banner is unfurled. The mood is subdued but picks up when someone finds the megaphone. The chants begin and energy levels lift: “No ifs, no buts, no Forest Hill cuts”; “They say cutback, we say fight back”; and “Not our deficit, it’s our school, don’t mess with it.”

Earlier in the dispute, the protests to highlight the plight of the school were bigger, but as the end of term approaches, numbers have diminished. Today, the gathering of staff is bolstered by a few parents who turn out in support – some with children – and there are regular toots from passing vehicles.

“It’s a fantastic school,” says Jacqueline Morrish, who has a son in year 9 and has turned out this morning to support his teachers. “It’s been brilliant. They treat the boys really well, and they flourish.” One father, whose 15-year-old son is one of the few attending school today, is also fully behind the striking teachers: “My boy is on the autistic spectrum. They are very good with special needs. That’s why he’s here. It’s been excellent.”

Teaching unions say the crisis is the result of years of frozen budgets, further eroded by higher pension, wage and tax costs, as well as inflation. As a result, the National Audit Office (NAO) calculates that schools are facing a £3bn real-terms cut in funding by 2019, with more schools going into deficit as a result. NAO figures show that the proportion of local authority-maintained secondary schools spending more than their income increased from 34% in 2010/11 to 59% in 2014-15, while the average size of deficit increased from £246,000 to £326,000 during the same period.

The growing schools funding crisisbecame a key issue in the general election campaign, forcing the Tory government to listen to parents’ and teachers’ concerns. On Monday, the education secretary Justine Greening announced an additional £1.3bn in schools’ funding to try to ease the pressure on budgets and placate angry parents. Teachers’ leaders say it is nowhere near enough. Given the scale of the deficit at Forest Hill, it is unlikely to have any immediate impact on the current crisis facing the school. Meanwhile, uncertainty remains over plans to reform the way in which schools are funded nationally, which could still have an additional impact on London schools.

Founded in 1956, Forest Hill school has been a popular, successful and highly regarded boys’ comprehensive that has served its diverse local community well. The original London county council brick structure has been replaced in the last decade with a modern PFI-funded building, which is shrouded in a distinctive palette of yellow and gold panels and cost £23.5m. The school’s reputation has been one of high achievement and inclusivity, catering for students of all backgrounds and abilities; its record on pastoral care and special educ