This Saturday (21 April) won’t come naturally to me.
I’m far more at home in a conference hall, the corridors of a school, or a TV or radio studio, than I am giving out leaflets in the streets.
But this Saturday, I’ll be on one of many stalls across England as part of a weekend of action to highlight the school funding crisis.
I’m doing so as part of the School Cuts Coalition – the Association of School and College Leaders, the NAHT heads' union, the NEU teaching union, and the GMB, Unison and Unite unions. I’ll be at Suffolk’s most beautiful and historic Georgian square – Angel Hill in Bury St Edmunds – the town where I spent 15 happy years as headteacher of King Edward VI School.
The reason this matters so much? The funding crisis is so stark. The figures speak for themselves. School funding has been cut in real terms by £2.8 billion since 2015.
And post-16 funding has been hit worst of all – leaving this vital sector suffering from chronic underinvestment.
That is why we are pleased that the Commons Education Select Committee is launching an inquiry into the level of school and college funding, and that it's examining whether a longer-term plan is needed for investment in education. We’ve long been advocating such an approach. It cannot come soon enough.
Behind the figures are myriad stories of how the funding crisis translates into the reality on the ground. These are the stories I have been hearing from our members since my election as ASCL’s general secretary over a year ago.
I spoke to a deputy head from a school recently who told me they had once again restructured their staffing – meaning the loss of their business manager, cutting small courses and increasing some class sizes to 36 pupils.
A vice-principal in another school told me how his leadership team has been reduced to five members. It’s a school of 1,500 students on a split site.
Another headteacher told me that in response to funding pressures, he had dismantled the academy’s pastoral system – losing all head-of-year roles and not replacing them. “So who will deal with major behaviour issues when they arise?” I asked. “Good question,” he said, bleakly.
Heads contact me to say they cannot face another year of trying to find savings of £150,000 plus. “All I ever talk about is cutting budgets,” one head said to me, “I can never get near the thing that most matters to me – teaching and learning."
Most days I have conversations like this.
One of these conversations particularly sticks in my mind: an assistant head angrily describing the cuts to her school’s curriculum, said: “We mustn’t let this happen.”
I asked if she’d speak publicly about the issues.
Difficult for school leaders to speak out
Like everyone I’ve referred to in this blog, she said, reluctantly, no. It would alarm parents, she said, and they might look to move their children elsewhere.
So, in the midst of a funding crisis propelling our schools and colleges to levels of provision unseen since the mid-1990s, the sense of competition between institutions means it’s hard for any leader to speak publicly about how cuts are affecting their own teachers, their own pupils. But they see it on a daily basis.
We have to do something about this. And this weekend of action is just one part of making sure parents and the wider public – the people who vote in elections – know precisely what damage is being done to an education system they believe in.
This Saturday, lots of us will be out there, telling the grim story of education’s biggest crisis. I’ll be doing so on behalf of school and college leaders, conscious of the fact that many cannot tell this story themselves.
They are the people who are having to make impossible decisions: fewer staff, larger class sizes and cuts to the curriculum, activities, school trips and so much more.
And all of those involved in the weekend of action – parents, teachers and support staff – will be doing so on behalf of the young people who deserve better from this government; an education system that is properly funded to give them the breadth and range of support that we think is their birthright.
We should be under no illusions that, despite the very best efforts of school and college leaders and teachers, the funding crisis is putting educational standards at risk, and undermining the government’s rhetoric about social mobility.
The damage must be undone. The government must do better for our young people.
Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton