Autumn Statement: 'With early education in retreat across the country, the chancellor has found £50m of new money for grammars'

If he cares about social mobility, Phillip Hammond should know to invest what spare cash there is into early years, writes one heads' leader

Russell Hobby

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I'd like to respond to the autumn statement. But what is there to respond to?

Nothing for education beyond reconfirmation of the money for expanding existing grammar schools. When it comes to social mobility, it is hard to imagine a more perverse priority. Early years provision is in retreat across the country. Nursery heads are in suspense about building new capacity for the 30 free hours. We know that high quality early intervention, like that in nurseries, is both targeted at the most disadvantaged and effective at narrowing the gap. These are tests that the grammar school policy fails miserably. 

As NAHT have pointed out recently, recruitment is bleak. A part of this is due to teacher pay falling behind and the government has again constrained the School Teachers' Review Body's remit to a 1 per cent cap. But, to be frank, even if it offered a generous pay rise, schools couldn't afford to pay it. The government seems engaged on a massive exercise in taxing itself: putting money into schools then taking it out again in national insurance, employer pension contributions and now the apprenticeship levy. That last alone will reduce school budgets by about a third of a per cent. It would again, be perverse, to promote apprenticeships by damaging academic education. 

Another major factor in budget difficulties is the retreat of local government services, as schools must pay for many of the services and interventions that used to be provided by the authority. When the money was taken out of local government, it wasn't given to schools for them to perform these functions, it disappeared from education altogether. There is a real risk that the rhetoric of the 'school-led system' becomes merely a smokescreen for austerity. 

Local authority cuts also create the dangerous situation where local authorities have powers and duties without the resources to fulfil them. This can lead to hasty, shallow interventions. We urgently need a new vision for local government's role in education: it has been left stranded by the retreating tide of universal academisation. Only last year it has no role at all. This is clearly no longer the case; but nor can it fill its old role. 

Although many schools are struggling now, the money begins to run out for most next year. That's when cuts will start to bite and the reserves run out. It is also when the lack of maintenance on the buildings for the last five years will start to become visible. 

I get that Brexit leaves a big hole in our finances. And I get that we need to invest in infrastructure. But if the government are looking to pump prime the economy, let's not forget that skills and knowledge are part of the infrastructure of our nation too. 

What advice can I offer government in a time of difficult choices in education? Place your biggest bets as early as possible - don't treat the symptoms but treat the causes and go for early intervention. And cut back on the turmoil. Unnecessary change carries a massive hidden cost and makes retention particularly challenging, forcing us to spend more money to recruit replacement teachers. Stability can help schools make the most of limited resources - and this includes clarity on the new funding formula. 

Russell Hobby is general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union. He tweets as @RussellHobby

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Russell Hobby

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