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'I hope Mr Hammond watched BBC2's School'

The show's a stark reminder of schools' financial struggles – ideal viewing for the chancellor, writes Bernard Trafford

BBC school_editorial

I’m sorry to go on about it, but I have to wonder what planet Philip Hammond thinks he’s on. Unable to see how his distinctly modest budget handout to schools for the “little extras” gave offence, his pique was evident when he remarked to the Education Select Committee that, if one school didn’t want the £50,000, he was sure one down the road would.

There’s something schoolmarmish about that reaction. I can picture the archetypal classroom dragon of yore, when a child refuses the Liquorice Allsorts she’s handing out at Christmas, commenting tartly, “Well, if Billy’s so fussy, I expect Jemima will like to have his sweet as well.”

The chancellor’s blindness stems from his belief – widely shared in Whitehall, in Ed Dorrell’s view – that school funding is adequate. Okay, that mindset concedes, perhaps they’re having to tighten their belts a little. But, hey, this is a time of austerity. We’re all having to do our bit.

Except that we’re not. Apparently it’s okay for Crossrail to run £1 billion over budget, not to mention several billions more on our two new aircraft carriers. Such overspends betray bungled commissioning and lousy brief-writing, yet government silence suggests it will simply fund the shortfalls without comment, while squeezing public services until the pips squeak. 

I imagine most people with a professional interest in education watched Tuesday’s first episode of BBC2’s new series, School. This excellently produced fly-on-the-wall documentary avoided labouring issues and didn’t seek to preach. Nonetheless, the harsh realities of underfunded education shone throughout.

Overstretched and undersupported

The charismatic Mr Street, science teacher and Year 11 tutor at Castle School, introduced a revision class with the happy news that “I’ve managed to get the revision textbooks today”. Politicians and ordinary citizens might assume that there are always enough textbooks in schools. But here was just another piece of evidence: teachers have to take turns with the books their classes need.

Dr Grant, running Year 7, overstretched and undersupported, commented: “All the children want is teachers’ time – and that’s gone.”

Surely it can’t be that bad, a viewer might protest. But it is. My heart ached for the Castle School staff when the interim head (note that: interim) protested that the only way to save some £400,000 on teachers’ salaries was to remove status and pay from middle management (heads of department, in old speak). 

Over the next three years, then, such teachers will see a salary cut of some £6,000. I don’t criticise the school – its governing trust has to square an impossible circle. Yet, middle managers, here downgraded and slapped in the face, are the very people held up to school leaders, a few years ago, as lying at the heart of school improvement, with National College courses aimed specifically at their development. 

Mark of so-called failure

As for the final twist in the guts of such teachers, the inspirational Mr Street, just avoiding tears, as he says goodbye to his tutor group (all teachers know that feeling), was reasonably pleased with his pupils’ GCSE results; then he observes drily that he’s missed his own target. After all that human interaction, anxiety, sorrow, hard work, in the data-driven world of teaching it will be a black mark for him.

In another time, such “failure” might have cost him a pay rise, through performance management. But I guess there won’t be any pay rises in his school, what with a £400,000 shortfall to plug.

The programme appeared measured, balanced, and showed the joys and the dedication of teachers, as well as the challenges and disappointments. I hope Mr Hammond observed the reality on the ground.

Or will he, cocooned in his personal wealth and with the trappings of power around him in Whitehall, continue to sulk at schools’ rejection of his £50,000 largesse in the face of their vastly bigger financial black holes? Will he applaud schools’ agonising decisions and convince himself that, surely, they could cut a bit more if only they’d really try?

Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher. He tweets at @bernardtrafford

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