“I was one of the 50” by Caroline Barlow @BarlowCaroline

I was one of the 50. 50 Headteachers who met in London on Tuesday 14th November to deliver a letter to Phillip Hammond in advance of the budget.  We represented 5000 colleagues from 25 counties across the country calling for cuts to school funding to be addressed in the Autumn Statement.

Media focus on this event was evident, matched by MP representation both at the event and associated meetings. I noted amongst the hubbub in Parliament Square, ITV, Channel 4, BBC and Sky television coverage on top of Radio 4 and national newspaper attention ranging from The Guardian to The Financial Times. Media outlets don’t give this much attention to stories that have no resonance or relevance.

This campaign has gathered momentum with parents and politicians from all parties. Heads have been clear throughout to be politically neutral and always ‘relentlessly reasonable’. Governors have been party to difficult decisions made every year on staffing and resourcing; parents have seen the provision for their children reduced in the name of ‘efficiencies’ and I now hear my students eloquently voice concerns about their compromised futures.

Consistent messages from the government are based around some central beliefs:

  • The new funding formula finally tackles “iniquitous decades” of postcode lottery in school funding across England.
  • School funding is at a record high.
  • Per pupil funding is protected.

I have heard others express agreement with many of the main strands of the schools’ argument but concern that it sits in the context of the national debt, anxiety about the political implications of raising taxation or a belief that the additional £1.3bn and new formula should be enough to ease the situation.

Many articles, papers and interviews expertly detail exactly why these beliefs do not stand up to scrutiny at the chalk face. I have yet to meet a Headteacher who has anything approaching “reserves” or one who is not losing sleep about the choices we face in the light of continued rising costs. It’s particularly stark when we also know the National Audit Office states that during 2011-16 there has been a net loss of 11,000 teachers. Schools are frequently unable to recruit specialist teachers because of a lack of availability. Perversely, we often have to spend exorbitant fees to private agencies to simply put a teacher in front of a class.

There are some simple, irrefutable factors in the crisis facing colleagues:

  • The Institute for Fiscal Studies has confirmed that, even after the introduction of the new National Funding Formula, in real terms, the overall budget for school funding will have been cut by 4.6% (£1.7 billion) during 2015-2020.
  • Unfortunately, the £1.3 billion was not extra “new money” to the department, but moved within it off-setting the original cuts from £3 billion to £1.7 billion.
  • Cost pressures in areas such as National Insurance and pensions are rising. Recent 1% salary increases for teachers were unfunded. Inflation has now reached 3%.

Fundamentally, the postcode lottery still exists. Put simply, for East Sussex if we were funded at the same level we would receive an additional £70.2 million if in Greenwich and £138.6 million in Hackney. By moving our schools to those boroughs we would clearly be able to employ many more teachers. It isn’t just about the staffing though, it’s renewal of equipment, maintenance of facilities and resources, or an ability not to ask parents to fund anything above core basic provision.

Among 50 Heads from across the country, from single schools and MATs, there was unanimous agreement, nobody wants to reduce one schools budget in order to increase another’s. Every Headteacher understands the need to balance a budget and the difficult choices associated with that. But the choices we face now have long lasting impact:

  • Class sizes of 35+
  • Schools stripping away all but the basic curricular provision
  • Extra-curricular activities receding to skeleton provision
  • Further sixth form closures
  • Our most vulnerable students not receiving the comprehensive support that they deserve.
  • Increasing requests to parents for “voluntary” donations.

This on top of the increased pressure on schools now even more in the front line of support for families due to cuts in social care, health and policing.

We should never have ended up in a place where there is debate about whether fair and adequate school funding is desirable or achievable. Our children only have one shot at their education. This budget did no more than throw crumbs to our cash starved schools.

  • £600 for schools for each extra pupil taking Maths A-level. This clearly does nothing for 11-16 schools and is unclear how it will benefit schools already successfully running Maths at A Level.
  • £42m over three years to provide extra training to “improve the quality of teaching” in a pilot project in some under-performing schools in England. The best CPD I could give my staff is reduced contact time, to focus on focused research informed autonomous professional learning. But this is so narrowly focused it will not apply to my school anyway.
  • £84m over four years to train 12,000 more staff qualified to teach Computer Science. This does nothing to help core budgets or teacher shortages in other subjects.

It is our core budgets that need additional funding; no amount of “gimmicky ideas” to paraphrase a recent broadsheet article “will make up for the terrible unfairness embodied in an 18 year old who has missed out on the education and skills they need to have their best chance of making a success of their life”.

I don’t envy Mr Hammond’s job but I cannot agree with the choices made. The campaign continues.  

 

Caroline Barlow is the Headteacher of Heathfield Community College and Sixth Form in East Sussex. In the picture, Caroline is strategically placed behind the ‘y’ in ‘Why?’…!

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