Tomorrow, our annual conference opens in Birmingham. We’ll be welcoming more than 1,000 school and college leaders from across the UK, as well as a host of luminaries from the education world. So now is perhaps a good time to reflect on my first year as general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. I have spent that time listening to our members, understanding the challenges they face, taking the temperature and seeing the brilliant work which goes on, day in and day out, in our schools and colleges.
Here are five things I have learned:
1. Funding matters above everything else
Funding is the gateway to every decision that we make – on curriculum, staffing, on support for the young people who need extra support, on – well everything. And the funding crisis in our schools and colleges threatens all of that. What I have seen is leaders having to make impossible decisions about what to cut, trying to balance budgets that will just not balance. The choice they face is stark: staffing numbers, curriculum options, support services, enrichment activities. There is nowhere else to go.
To give credit to the Department for Education, it has tried. Former education secretary Justine Greening managed to redirect £1.3 billion into school funding over the next two years. And the department has grasped the nettle of funding distribution – the historic unfairness of similar schools in different parts of the country receiving different levels of funding. Its commitment to a new funding formula is something previous governments have ducked.
But there simply isn’t enough money in the system, and I see and hear the evidence of that every day in my conversations with members, in the emails I receive. The situation in 16-19 education is particularly worrying. Despite its importance to young people, as they work towards university places, apprenticeships and careers, funding levels are dire.
This cannot go on. There is no more money down the back of the DfE’s sofa. We need the prime minister and the Treasury to step up to the plate and give our schools and colleges the money that they need, and which our young people deserve.
2. Funding is also a social mobility issue
Because the lack of funding threatens the breadth of the curriculum, it means that schools have no choice other than to reduce their subject options as well as cutting back on their after-school clubs, trips and sports fixtures. Most seriously, it puts in jeopardy non-EBacc subjects like music, dance, design and drama. It drives us towards the narrow core defined by the English Baccalaureate. Our colleagues in the independent sector know the importance of a broad curriculum, of a wide range of clubs and activities that give their students wonderful, enriching opportunities. Every child deserves that breadth – not just those whose parents can afford it.
What I have seen over the past year is schools and colleges doing their very best to maintain, cherish and protect what they can offer. But they cannot do so out of thin air. Social mobility needs to be resourced.
3. Recruitment and retention can be fixed
It isn’t going to be easy. Teacher supply is an issue for virtually every school, every college. And, like funding, it is a social mobility issue. Those schools worst affected are often those in the most challenging circumstances: where the lack of candidates means they are most reliant on supply staff and non-specialists. In the very schools where we need the best, most experienced teachers, we have the biggest recruitment problems.
But it can be fixed. There are some things that the government can and must do. The most obvious of these is to improve teachers’ pay and simplify the routes into teaching. But there are other things that can be achieved only by a collective effort; all of us in the education system working alongside government. And we need to do a lot of things. Reduce workload, improve professional development, adopt more flexible working practices and collectively tell a better, more positive story about our profession to the wider world.
And we need to do this now because, with the number of pupils in our schools set to rise by nearly 500,000 over the next five years, we are going to need a lot more teachers very soon.
4. Our accountability culture has to change
The original promise was one of liberation through system leadership; that leaders in successful schools and colleges would be left to concentrate on what matters – the work of teachers in helping young people of all backgrounds. Except, as my members keep telling me, it doesn’t feel like that. It feels more like system managerialism – excessive monitoring, progress targets, inspection and other distracting mechanisms of the English education system that leave too many leaders feeling hemmed in, undervalued and fearful. Our system is too narrow, too draconian; the performance tables complex and too blunt. In January we had schools falling below the floor – being branded in the media as failing – because of changes in statistical methodology that weren’t of their making. This cannot be fair and cannot continue.
5. We can be more optimistic
The privilege of my role is that I get to meet lots of people in lots of places. I see good people working hard to make things better for young people. We need to celebrate that work far more loudly. Because the discourse about education is often very negative. The story the public hears is one of problems and challenges, of the things that go wrong. There are often good reasons for highlighting these issues. I have done so in this column today in points one to four. But we also need to be mindful that, taken collectively, this discourse can have a corrosive effect on public perception. It is one of the reasons that graduates may decide against a career in teaching.
So we also need to tell the positive story about our schools and colleges at every opportunity. Hence this point five today. And we have a lot of which to be proud. I have seen over the past year the professionalism and commitment to young people that goes on in our profession in every part of the UK, in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. I have seen not only great educational leadership but great community leadership. And that is the story that we can and must tell and keep telling.
Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton
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