This week, the chancellor announced an extra £285 million to ensure that schools can stay open longer. The extra money will allow 25 per cent of schools to extend their opening hours to provide more after-school clubs.
However, real-terms budget cuts for schools will continue. These have forced many into whole-school staff restructuring and others into difficult choices on curriculum planning. Departmental budgets for things like textbooks, photocopying and technology have been slashed. Many, particularly those in charge of non-core subjects, are now surviving on a shoe-string. Meanwhile, class sizes continue to creep up nationwide, as immigration and a population surge combine to create an upcoming school-place crisis in some areas.
Despite these pressures, Ofsted continues to expect higher and higher “standards” (results) from every school. The pressure on teaching staff has been unprecedented. An academy in the South West, which will remain nameless, let 14 teachers go last term, and the head explained this away as “a healthy turnover”. Many were coerced out of their jobs by unscrupulous senior leaders, hell-bent on scrutinising their every move. Some were very good teachers.
With £285 million to play with, the chancellor is as misguided as every education minister who has come before, in believing the best way to spend it is in increasing the capacity of schools to play the role of mummy and daddy, rather than by improving the working lives of teachers.
To be blunt, what would have been welcome is a more direct announcement stating that parents will be expected to be parents and that schools will be given an extra £285 million just to be schools within normal school hours. Instead, something extra will be provided, always something extra. Meanwhile, the essentials will continue to be neglected.
Undoubtedly, the essentials are the teachers themselves – the fabric that holds together every single school. Yet, the fact is that more than 50,000 left teaching last year alone, the highest number in more than 10 years. And the fact that more than 40 per cent of new teachers are leaving in their first year seems to have had little impact on policymakers.
Cary Cooper, a respected academic at Manchester University, stated that teaching was in the top three most stressful professions in the UK, citing “workload, long and unsociable hours and constant change” as the recurring reasons. The alarming fact that more than 50 per cent of teachers are currently considering leaving the profession only adds to the reality that the quality of the teaching fraternity is gradually diminishing as good teachers either go or get promoted up the scale.
The government, quite staggeringly, still hasn’t grasped that without quality, well-trained and relatively healthy teachers standing in front of students, changing the status of schools or the length of the school day is unlikely to yield any notable change in educational outcomes.
Let’s say they decided to prioritise the recruitment and retention of teachers. They could divert that £285 million into extra PPA time, extra time for staff to mark and assess and deal with curriculum changes, time for staff to attend CPD courses or to lower class sizes. Then, surely, the knock-on effect on teacher wellbeing, and therefore results, would be marked.
Instead, their concerns that the attainment gap between disadvantaged students and their peers isn’t narrowing has led them to ensure that the 25 per cent of students who live in socially deprived areas spend longer in school and less time at home, taking yet more accountability away from parents at the same time as increasing it for schools. Again, this is a recurring and damaging trend that is slowly reinforcing the idea that schools and teachers are the chief guarantors of student success.
The move to full academisation by 2022 will serve to disguise an educational crisis. The legal ability of academies to employ non-qualified teaching staff will allow them to recruit anyone and everyone. Predictably glib announcements by the government will proclaim that the number of employed teaching staff is continuing to increase, despite the parallel exodus of many of the great and good.
Ministers will also allow headteachers and executives more power to control the wages of their employees. Performance-related pay will go into hyper-drive. Some will never achieve a pay rise; others will be paid salaries in the hundreds of thousands, as highlighted by Sir Michael Wilshaw, the head of Ofsted, himself only last week. Schools will become like businesses, with the results of individual teachers published openly, leading to league tables of teachers within schools and the unmerciful division and deflation that will cause.
The free hand for academies to design their own curriculums and assessment criteria creates a web of secret gardens, where everyone is wondering what everyone else is doing, unsure of their own path and making critical mistakes along the way. With curriculum freedom will come much more responsibility to design, implement and monitor curriculum innovations and assessment systems, but with no more time or money to make a success of it. The result will surely be more of the same: huge differences in assessment, marking and curriculum content between subjects, schools, academy chains and regions. A truly scattergun approach. The haemorrhaging of the great and good in schools will continue at a pace and teacher imports will increase, with the gap filled by Jamaicans, Canadians and anyone else who will take the carrot.
'A brazen lie'
You may wonder why Nicky Morgan is so fixated on the academy programme. Asked on the Andrew Marr Show in May 2015 if she believed that academies were a “better kind” of school than those overseen by local authorities, Ms Morgan said: “I do – we can see in the results that students do better in academies, both at key stage 2 – at the end of primary school – and at GCSE.”
This claim is quite simply a brazen lie, delivered for the benefit of the general public in a facade of pleasantness. Data only released in August 2015 showed that, among secondary schools rated inadequate by Ofsted, sponsored academies were more than four times more likely to remain inadequate after the first inspection. The data indicated that primary schools would be 12 times more likely to remain inadequate.
It is undisputed that it is teacher quality that has the biggest impact on student attainment. If you place a good teacher into a comprehensive, an academy, a grammar school or a private one, they will remain a good teacher.
The resources invested by government into tinkering with systems is mind-boggling when – if they just focused on getting it right at grassroots level across the board – everything could be so different. As it is, 44,000 workload surveys have led to no noticeable changes in teachers’ working conditions. Were they even read?
The problem with Ms Morgan is she has no context of how real education works. Having attended the fee-paying exclusivity of Surbiton High School, she then went on to study at St Hugh's College, Oxford. Michael Gove followed a similar course.
It’s high time we had a teacher in the top job, preferably elected. In Wales, they have Huw Lewis, a former chemistry teacher, as their education secretary. A former teacher might have a better plan about how to spend people’s taxes effectively.
So, in summary, this Budget is disappointingly predictable: avoiding the real problems by taking a wild stab in the dark.