“There was once a rat on the playing field for two days. Now there are no dead animals.”
This statement from a pupil, about how dead rodents were no longer left lying around to decay, said more about the transformation of a school than hours of facts and figures from the senior leadership team would have revealed.
It revealed there were now people in charge who cared, about the pupils and about the environment in which they spend some 900 hours a year.
But for the vast majority of school leaders, this is becoming more and more difficult for them to demonstrate.
It’s not just the cuts to capital budgets resulting in crumbling buildings and leaks from the ceilings. It’s not just the cost-saving slashing of support services – mental health counselling, speech therapy, teaching assistants. It’s not just the inability to replace staff who are leaving because the school simply can’t afford to recruit.
It’s higher national insurance and pension contributions, the apprenticeship levy, the phasing out of the Education Services Grant.
And the news gets bleaker still. A report from the National Audit Office says that schools will be forced to find £3 billion-worth of savings by 2019-20 and they will see an 8 per cent cut to real-terms funding between 2014-15 and 2019-20.
Heads and schools, it says, have “not seen this level of reduction in spending power since the mid-1990s”.
“Schools’ budgets are being pushed beyond breaking point,” says Russell Hobby, head of the NAHT headteachers’ union. “It is clear that schools cannot make these savings without reducing their biggest cost, which is staffing. To do this puts the quality of education at risk.”
Devastating effects of reform
There will be little respite from adjustments in the national funding formula: at the end of the day, that is just about the redistribution of what is already an insufficient pot of cash. As one observer pointed out: “In a famine, fair distribution means everyone starves to death slowly.”
It puts the government in a tricky spot, especially coming so soon after the Pisa results.
How on earth can they justify ripping up the entire school system, bringing in academisation and free schools? After all the chaos and the many, many millions of pounds spent, they have failed to deliver any significant improvement in the country’s standing in the global education rankings. Now they are going to have to ask schools to do it with fewer staff and even less cash.
And let’s not forget it was moving up the Pisa tables that Michael Gove, as education secretary, used to justify these reforms. However, for him it’s still “too soon” to judge “whether or not everything I did was right”.
But it’s not too soon for the rest of us, who are already seeing the devastating effects. Some of the curriculum reform was right, but the relentless and spiteful focus on destroying local authorities at all costs was very wrong.
The terrible injustice, however, is that neither Mr Gove nor the Department for Education will pay the price: it’s the current generation of pupils, whose schooling will be compromised.
On top of all this, the government wants to siphon off yet more cash to pay for the expansion of grammar schools. That is, in one fell swoop, breathtakingly arrogant and monumentally stupid.
The only structures anyone should be caring about are the ones that are about to fall down around our ears – staffing structures, school buildings and support for vulnerable children. We shouldn’t be giving a rat’s arse about anything else.