Subjects such as German, French, art, drama and design technology could soon be closed to many public school students as school leaders say they are being forced to cut classes costly and less popular to address crippling deficits.
The vast majority of English state schools expect to be in the red by next school year, driven by huge energy bills and an unfunded pay rise for teachers.
Thousands of schools are now planning to lay off teachers and teaching assistants or cut their hours. But unions and headteachers say that with schools forced to increase class sizes, subject choice in secondary schools will suffer as headteachers will scrap lessons that have lower attendance and are less economical to teach.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “The subjects that we have always considered to be culturally very important will increasingly become the preserve of private schools because public schools do not have the ways to teach them.
He told the Observer that subjects which attract fewer pupils at GCSE and A level, including theatre, art, German and French, would all be at risk of being scrapped, as “one teacher for 20 children will no longer be viable “.
Topics like design technology, which is expensive because schools have to buy equipment and classes can’t be large for safety reasons, would also be at risk, he said.
He warned that valuable subjects would quietly disappear. “Heads don’t want to discourage parents by admitting they cut GCSE German because they can’t afford it. But it’s happening.”
Will Teece, Principal of Brookvale Groby Learning Campus, a secondary academy in Leicester, said: “We are certainly looking at our choices after 16 and subjects with small groups and high staff costs which we will have to lose.” He said: ‘You have to have someone in front of the pupils to keep the class sizes going up. I don’t know how schools are going to manage if the halls aren’t big enough.
George McMillan, executive director of Harris academy schools in Greenwich and Ockendon in Essex, said: “For A level we are already in a position where for subjects to work financially you need at least 100 students in each age group. Anything that isn’t popular enough can’t run.
He said many schools were already asking staff to teach subjects outside their major due to teacher shortages, and this would increase due to the funding crisis. “Science is often taught by physical education teachers; computer science, for which it was difficult to find teachers for many years, is taught by math teachers, often reluctantly,” he said. “If it’s permanent, it becomes soul destroying for the staff and they leave.”
He said academies were terrified of being put under special measures by Ofsted for not delivering a broad enough curriculum, but there was not enough money or staff to do it properly.
He predicted 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 initial secondary teacher training down 23% this year from 2019, “even finding a first-time teacher is difficult”.
Adam Watt, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Professor of French at the University of Exeter, said: “If opportunities to develop language skills become the preserve of those who can afford a private education, it will significantly reduce the potential of our future workforce.”
He argued that learning languages like French and German at school teaches young people “communication skills, multitasking, flexibility of thought and, above all, awareness and openness to difference”.
A DfE spokesperson said core funding for schools this year included a £4billion cash boost which will help them deliver a “broad and balanced curriculum”.