“A New Hope or The Empire Strikes Back?” by David Whitaker (@davewhitaker246; Blog 15 2018-19)

Ofsted, funding and all the other stuff that bugs us in special schools…

Sometimes it feels like it is a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Here, good battles evil and dark lords are moving around the galaxy imposing rules that seem to encourage rebellion. But rebellion is not easy and it feels like uprisings can be quashed at every turn by decisions that are made without thought or care for the people it impacts upon.

Being a special school & PRU head teacher is like being a member of the rebellion but without the advantage of having The Force. It’s like being Han Solo rather than Luke Skywalker. It feels like a constant fight, shooting from the hip and having no overarching power or guidance from a master. Flying around the galaxy in the Millennium Falcon; you love it dearly but you know it’s getting older, slower and needs constant repair just to do the job it is supposed to do. It needs investment, but people still expect you to do the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs.

Every time a new DfE document is released I think ‘what about special and AP?’. Every time a new Ofsted framework is published I think ‘Have they considered special or AP?’. When data and progress measures are set and standards decided I think ‘Does this include special and AP?’.

And so, it happens all over again, a new Ofsted framework. Episode 7, A New Hope. Or is that episode 1 or episode 4? Either way it is supposed to be A New Hope but ends up being The Empire Strikes Back or even Revenge of The Sith. I looked forward to the new Ofsted framework with a sense of hope but after reading it a feeling of fear overwhelms me. I dread that being outstanding will be linked directly with funding. Can we afford to put in place the appropriate standards required to get the top grade? Can we balance staff wellbeing, as ‘outstanding’ leaders, whilst relying on their goodwill to give our children all they deserve?

How does a stranger to my school, who possibly has never led or worked in a PRU or SEMH school, measure how good the implementation and impact of the curriculum is? Who is actually going to tell me what my curriculum needs to be so that I get it right? I certainly know that my curriculum intent will not be in doubt. The intent is to provide an appropriate curriculum with a focus on progression in a number of key areas. Social, Emotional and Mental Health progress is essential; core academic skills with a drive to improve individuals reading and writing and increase engagement through positive attendance progress is also vital. Pupils must be supported with wrap-around care, family support, mental health support, help with independent living, pastoral support, therapy and in many cases support with food and clothing. All these things happen at school, with the resources from school and the goodwill of the staff.

Preparation for the next phase of education is also a key element of the curriculum intent. Children need high levels of support and guidance to be able to move to post 16 education successfully. They need specialist support if they are to move smoothly into a mainstream school. These transitions all rely on commitment from skilled and dedicated staff and draw on the resources of a shrinking budget. So, the intent is there but the implementation relies wholly on how much money is in the school, how you can implement your intentions and therefore what the impact will be.

Put simply, no matter how good it is, the new Ofsted framework is irrelevant without the money in school to deliver what it requires. In special and alternative education, this variance in funding is massive and is quite simply a post code lottery. Our children are complex and vulnerable. They are often misunderstood and need care and attention alongside an appropriate curriculum and pastoral support. They are trapped in a society that seems to see them as second best. The funding for SEND and AP, via the High Needs Block, is in crisis. Yet, we still must meet rigorous standards to gain a judgement that is constantly on a knife edge. Everyone knows that we need more money to support our SEND children but it seems to be ok to ignore the call. Not providing the appropriate funding, but then expecting great results, is like asking Rotherham United to successfully compete for the Premier League title (Rotherham United recently lost 7 nil to Manchester City in the FA Cup. A game where a squad costing £2 million played one costing £500 million. Same rules, same pitch, same competition). It doesn’t make sense!

Is it ever fair that a child with identical needs in one local authority gets significantly less funding than a child in another authority just because of where they live? Is it fair that those two schools are also judged in exactly the same way by Ofsted without any consideration of funding? This is about schools being resourced appropriately to meet the complex needs of the children, instead of lurching from year to year with uncertainty and doubt about the future. No planning, no strategy, no development. Just a fear that year after year resources will be stretched and the only way to manage is through additional workload and increased goodwill.

Working as a teaching assistant or support worker in a special school or alternative setting is a highly skilled and expert job. It takes commitment, patience, tenacity and dedication. To do it properly needs a level of resilience that is difficult to comprehend unless you see it in action. It also takes a huge investment of time and resource into training. So why do we still think we can consider this a minimum wage occupation? Simple, it’s because that’s all we can afford to pay. They deserve more.

When you know that children require specialist support for mental health difficulties, and in many cases psychotherapy, can you imagine the frustration when you can’t afford to provide it? You know that providing this support will increase the life chances of the children in your care. You know they won’t get this support anywhere else and you know that this lack of funding will not matter to, or influence an Ofsted judgement. The average waiting time to see a therapist in my school is thirty-eight weeks. That’s too long.

If you think there is a recruitment crisis in mainstream schools then take a look at the number of teachers that apply for maths jobs in PRUs.

If you think that some school buildings are in need of repair then let’s do a survey of PRUs and AP settings and then make a judgement about whether our education system is funded appropriately.

Fear engulfs me. I look at school funding and worry about the future for our children. Does this make me angry? I tell the children in my school that being angry is ok, it’s what we do when we are angry that is important. In this case I just want everyone to know that we, in special schools, PRUs and Alternative Provision, really want the very best for our children. We are happy and comfortable with being held to account. We just want enough money to do the job without fear or favour. We really do want a new hope and not to live in fear.

“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate leads to suffering. I sense much fear in you.” — Yoda

Dave Whitaker is a founding member of HTRT and is Executive Principal of Springwell Learning Community, part of the Wellspring Academy Trust.

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