OK, this is a post from the heart rather than the analytical approach I usually take. This is me and my personal views, a post born out of sheer frustration and sadness at what’s happening to our education system. An education system that was my salvation as a teenager from what used to be termed a ‘broken home’, that showed me a way out of poverty and made me realise that anything is possible if you take responsibility and work hard to realise your dreams.
I’ve spent over 30 years of my career trying to help school leaders to squeeze every ounce of value out of the money going into the education system. When you’ve seen so many governments and policies come and go, you detect a pattern, a cycle of ups and downs that makes it a bit easier to weather the storms. But I’ve never felt such a sense of hopelessness as I do now; usually we see the debate focused on what it means for our children and their learning.
Those who are taking the decisions about redistributing funding right now seem to be thinking about anything but children. It is being treated as a huge mathematical exercise, levelling up some schools and levelling down others as if they can just stop doing things at the drop of a hat. This government doesn’t believe in evidence-based policy. It hasn’t done the research on how much it costs to deliver education to a given number of children with a given profile, in particular settings, urban and rural, affluent and deprived. Of course schools can save billions by reducing staff (i.e. teachers) and buying the cheapest resources, or at least they can if the impact on children doesn’t matter.
But it does matter. Pupils only have one chance at an educated childhood, and if the experiment is detrimental to them, they can spend years wasting away without realising their potential, missing out on the opportunities they could have. It’s cruelty, pure and simple, not to mention discriminatory. Plus it is hardly in the national interest: it will create more citizens who are unable to function economically in the future. Of course governments generally can’t see much further than the next general election. But a child is for life, not the duration of a Parliament.
I bet government Ministers want the best education for their own children and will probably pay generous amounts for it. So why isn’t it good enough for everyone?
The system is broken and storm clouds are gathering. Heads and governors have their hands firmly tied behind their back – both hands now. The demands of headship are impossible – it takes someone very special to survive it. As if it wasn’t hard enough to get results out of children who don’t have parental support and haven’t been told right from wrong (and some don’t even know how to eat with a knife and fork), now schools are expected to take responsibility for resolving the root causes of barriers to learning, even if they have nothing to do with the school.
Make your mind up Mrs May and Ms Greening – either you want schools to do everything, in which case you need to fund them properly, or you don’t, in which case you can only let them go back to simply educating the children if you set up a holistic system to put right all the things that prevent children from getting to school ready to learn. That means proper funding for parenting support, health issues and social care for a start – for parents and children.
There are many unreasonable expectations on schools and those who are whole-heartedly fulfilling them are probably among those most likely to lose funding, because they are deemed to be ‘over funded’. How stupid a term is that? What is wrong with schools spending more to address the barriers faced by children with very high needs? Some DfE civil servants probably wouldn’t recognise a child with SEND if they fell over one – assuming they ever left their ivory towers.
It’s getting worse – schools are now being held responsible for identifying mental health issues, and getting help for pupils. The are expected to compensate for poor parenting, because the government won’t fund early help properly – the cuts in funding for local authorities and now schools mean that this is likely to be the first thing to be ditched in the search for savings.
Often the lack of contributions by health mean schools have to provide equipment to meet a personal need rather than an educational need, and they frequently have to administer personal care and medication. Teachers are there to teach, not to nurse. And think of the risks if something goes wrong.
I bet Ministers have no idea of the day to day things that school staff have to cope with. Not just the far end of the scale where there is social care involvement, but other types of neglect. Children turn up at school without dinner money and staff let them have a lunch rather than see them go hungry. I know of heads who’ve been berated by parents for buying a child a birthday present, because it meant the family would have to get them something.
The saddest thing I ever heard was when a school clerk rang a pupil’s home to ask for a little boy’s date of birth. His grandmother answered but didn’t know it. The clerk told her to find the child benefit book. She could find that all right – but when she did, and read out the date, she said ‘Oh no, we’ve missed it again’. How can a child whose family doesn’t even celebrate his birthday have any sense of self-worth and confidence as a platform for their learning? Yet the school is supposed to transform that child into an educated adult. On the positive side, I’ve seen a primary school described by an Ofsted inspector as an ‘oasis’ for their children, who came from the most deprived backgrounds you could imagine.
The pressures on schools are such that in desperation a minority are driven to take approaches that hardly meet the moral standards test. The problem is that the system is not only allowing this but almost encouraging it by putting perverse incentives in place that mean it’s career suicide to be fully inclusive. It is a fragmented system where checks and balances are so inconsistent that some leaders think it is worth the risk because the reward is survival. Hence we see reports in the press of fraud and mismanagement of public money, schools managing to persuade parents of children with SEND to take them to the school down the road, or passing ‘problem children’ to other schools without disclosing their full history. Attendance records are falsified, and pupils are allowed to be on part time timetables for no reason other than they are a nuisance to the school.
The trouble is that some of these behaviours give Ministers an excuse to say we are all wasting money. The many upright and genuinely philanthropic head teachers and academy principals must be feeling very resentful of the bad image that is being created by those wicked enough to line their own pockets by taking money from the mouths of children. Even where there isn’t out and out fraud, there are some instances of ridiculous salaries and bonuses which can’t possibly be deserved.
DfE is complicit in this, not monitoring related party interests and other potential risks properly, not asking robust questions, failing to chase free school debts and being deliberately favouritist in the allocation of huge sums of money, seemingly blind to or not bothered about waste or the absence of proof in some cases that better outcomes for children are being secured. And don’t get me started on Ofsted’s inability to even ask about the school’s financial situation, let alone blithely ignore a huge deficit or believe the leaders who say their deficit of over £2m (the highest in the country) will be recovered by the end of the year (it increased to over £3m).
It’s not just schools that are in difficulty. LAs that won’t benefit from the High Needs National Funding Formula will see their funding pegged at current levels, regardless of the huge increase in SEND we are seeing. DfE celebrated the ‘no LA will lose’ decision. Yet the Department knows that 107 out of 150 LAs have transferred a total of £323m to their High Needs Block from Schools and Early Years Blocks up to 2016/17 – that’s 8.5% higher than their allocation from DfE and the trends look set to continue. The future system provides very little extra funding for new places; a substantial amount comes from an historic spend element (frozen at 50% of 2017/18 spending) and an allocation based on population, which hardly targets complex needs that have a more random incidence. Autism diagnoses are escalating, and advances in neo-natal techniques are seeing more pre-term babies surviving but sadly many have complex needs and disabilities.
In providing capital funding for new special schools, DfE is acknowledging SEND is rising, but won’t provide any extra revenue funding to support those places. They magnanimously say that LAs can continue to ask schools to transfer money to the High Needs Block. How likely is it that schools who are losing from the NFF will agree to that? What are LAs supposed to do if schools say no? They can’t and won’t stop funding children with SEND – it’s their statutory duty.
So whichever way you look at it, the system is broken. What can we do to fix it?
I believe it’s time for educationalists to band together and say enough is enough. What will it take to make government realise that spending can only be reduced so far and that it can’t happen quickly? How can we regain some respect for the education system and stop the snouts in troughs, the waste and mismanagement that has crept into some corners?
Those who believe in doing things properly and with a sense of moral purpose need to put peer pressure on to the minority who don’t, so we can’t be accused of wasteful use of resources. That’s the only way we can have a reasonable debate about the amount of money that schools at all points of the socio-economic spectrum need to fulfil their duties, however those duties are defined (and we do need a definition, so everyone knows what’s expected).
It goes against the grain to suggest everyone carries on spending what the children need, but if we cut and cut without considering the impact on the children, it will just be storing up trouble for their future and somehow someone will have to pay at some time in the future. What will happen if all schools that don’t get enough funding to cover cost pressures/additional pupils/increasing SEND go into deficits that they can’t get out of? What if LAs can’t cover the shortfall in SEND funding? This downward spiral won’t help anyone, least of all the children.
Over to you… let’s get the debate going before this crazy idea is cemented in place, of robbing Peter to pay Paul, when neither of them have the right amount of money in the first place to cover what they need to spend to survive.