I took up headship a year ago. At Open Evening I happily tell parents I believe it is the best job in the world. I’ve learnt a lot in a year but am acutely aware I have much left to learn. I was recently interviewed for a publication showing how schools were responding to the funding crisis. It was a sharp reminder of my naivety compared to experienced heads who’ve been balancing tight budgets for years and how uncomfortable it is at the sharp-end of school funding. I hate to think that life as headteacher will be dominated by pounds not by people but when Piers Morgan interviewed the @WorthlessWS campaign this week, there was little doubt that this is a known national issue, affecting everything we can (or can’t) do in schools.
Most politicians and headteachers want to make a difference for the better. There is increasing agreement around the main educational concerns: recruitment/retention, achievement/progress, social mobility and the wellbeing of staff and students. However, we now need agreement that education deserves adequate resourcing and an immediate end to political distractions of structure.
Recruitment and Retention
My October intray is filling up with applications for pay progression. I have great staff; they deserve a decent return for their considerable efforts. If I am to attract and retain excellent staff, I must be able to provide them all with the rewards worthy of a valued profession. Recruitment costs including £1500 per advert and extortionate agency fees only detract further from funds available to spend on children.
I want to retain staff, prioritise wellbeing and focus on T&L, “keep the main thing the main thing”. However, every decision to give time to refine expertise means the small pot gets smaller. Our staff are asked to provide a second subject as I would rather keep loyal and skilled staff where I can; for others redundancies and reduced time is a reality. Half termly doughnuts, tea and coffee in the staff room are small tokens but these are deliberate choices to create a caring and supportive environment that makes people stay and recommend to others. Whilst £50 million is found to “expand” grammar schools, I wonder what I could achieve with that kind of funding for our already successful comprehensive.
HTRTAGP practical suggestions would make a real difference: a National Recruitment Fund, National Service Benefit, regional clusters to focus on areas of need, a national perspective on ITT places, sabbaticals for research and refreshment, quality support for professional development programmes including masters and doctorate level. Providing for a respected, valued teaching profession will need less spent centrally on short term gimmicks and more investment in long term quality.
Achievement and Progress
Cliff-edged accountability means that at many key stages the joyous pursuit of learning is compromised by the need to meet high-stakes threshold measures. However, our ability to provide the intervention required for individual students to reach these specific measures, is severely limited by #flatcash. There isn’t enough to cover the needs of all and the long-term solution of quality teaching for all in existing (reducing) curriculum time takes us back to modelling, staffing and training costs.
In our 11-18 school we look creatively at curriculum modelling, balancing cost with obligations to an offer that supports aspirational training or university. Like many, we’ve trimmed our model and continue to review but this brings less choice. The homogenisation of curriculum has been seen all over the country with concerns about the resulting position of certain subjects. Further cost-efficient changes threaten increasing class sizes and the depersonalisation of delivery. It is not a big leap to get from where we are to headlines of 4-day weeks or classes of 60+ if we can’t afford to staff differently. There is no doubt reform was needed and efficiencies can be made but have we ended up with what is right for all students and all schools?
HTRTAGP calls for a focused, efficient and coherent accountability process. An end to floor targets and a return to a form of contextualised value-added that allows us to stop focusing resources around externally imposed benchmarks and focus efforts on progress, reducing variability and longer term solutions to improving teaching, learning and assessment.
Research and a wealth of evidence tells us astutely targeted, pupil premium funding makes a difference. Certainly system-wide it seemed to have impact when first introduced. Could the plateauing we have seen in recent years be due to more than educational factors? If we are genuinely going to break cycles of disadvantage for students and families, we need well-resourced social care provision. Decent response time for families in crisis, quality support for those who do not lack aspiration but have exhausted their own resources. Access to mental health support for those who can’t even begin to engage with learning. Paucity of funding is not restricted to education but we certainly don’t have the resources to provide the counselling, family or housing support required to make up the gap.
HTRTAGP recommends a 10-year commitment with cross-party support to resourcing for these children and families, linked to the social issues that we know put students in a better place to learn. A commitment to pupil premium funding and a long term measure for measuring standards reached by young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
I genuinely love my job. I relish every day spent in the company of enthusiastic teenagers and intelligent professionals who are passionate about their job. I am reflective about how we can continue to improve but I cannot imagine how constant distraction about school structure is anything close to a solution to the challenges we face. HTRTAGP offers policy ideas that put students and teachers at the heart of what we do. Many of us are already genuinely committed to do that whatever our circumstances or structure but sadly without the funding to support us we will all be disadvantaged.
By Caroline Barlow Headteacher of Heathfield Community College, East Sussex and a member of the HTRT Core Group.
Caroline is on twitter as @BarlowCaroline