I recently read The Twits by Roald Dahl to my son. We were both hooting with laughter at the story of how Mr Twit makes Mrs Twit believe that she is slowly shrinking by gluing pieces of wood no thicker than a penny onto her cane each night, as well as onto the legs of her stool.
She doesn’t notice her shrinking size at first until suddenly she’s in crisis and has to go for extreme measures, tying her feet to the ground and stretching herself with hundreds of helium balloons tied around her wrists. Of course, she ends up cut loose, floating up into space.
It seems an apt metaphor for our current situation.
For the last two years, I’ve been scratching my head and wondering why on earth budget cuts are not hitting front-page news. I guess headteachers have just quietly got on with it, not replacing a teacher here; a support staff redundancy there.
The chancellor, Mr Twitt, instead of adding slivers no thicker than a penny, has been gradually shaving slivers away from school funding and shouting with Twitt-like glee that the funding pot is the same size as it was before. Bigger, even.
I’m an experienced headteacher in a fairly large and successful inner-city multi-academy trust (MAT). Those of us who are headteachers in MATs don’t usually make public statements, as we presume protestations are made to the government behind closed doors by those way above us in the food chain.
I’ve noted with increasing alarm the gradual disappearance of the extra revenues of funding that we’ve relied on to continue driving improvement.
In my school, we’ve lost around £300,000 in the last two years – whether in direct cuts to the ESG and other pots, or by unfunded national pay increases, national insurance increases and increases to pensions.
We also have the ludicrous problem with lag funding, where we are funded from pupil numbers from the previous year, which means that although as a growing school we need to recruit more teachers each year, these are not funded until the following year, when the same problem starts all over again.
Now we’re in crisis and the public has suddenly realised that not only has Mr Twitt been scraping away funding, but is about to take a massive axe to it.
In my school, we’ve lost another £350,000 for September. Can I just say that again? Three hundred and fifty thousand pounds. That’s the equivalent of seven teachers.
There is no way to absorb this through "efficiencies" – I’ve already made all of those. My staffing has been maintained in the last two years at around 80 per cent of my budget, but that's 80 per cent of a much reduced budget, so, actually, I've got less headcount (for more kids).
One education newspaper's front page this week shouts: “Secondaries face £291,000 real-terms cut by 2019-20”. But I’m facing another £350,000 for 2017. Even the educational press don’t seem to understand the real scale of the issue.
On top of that, there’s another unfunded staff payrise to try and absorb this September. Plus if the national funding formula kicks in the following year, I’ll be down another £350,000 as well.
And the only way to absorb all this is through cutting teachers. But what do I do with all the kids?
Just to come in on budget this year, I’ve laid off or not replaced: my librarian, a receptionist, my counsellor, a premises manager, an attendance officer, a head of year and three teachers.
I’ve halved the department budgets, stopped subsidising school trips, reduced CPD to virtually nothing and stopped the school paying into my pension (I’ll be dead by 50 at this rate, anyway).
The Department for Education (DfE) and Ofsted will say that standards can be maintained and improved further. Does anyone seriously think you can get rid of all these people without affecting student wellbeing and student outcomes? Without affecting staff morale? Staff turnover?
The reason why London was such a success story in terms of school improvement in the last decade or so was the London Challenge programme, with its lower-stakes peer-to-peer reviews and support, and – most importantly – decent funding and attracting decent leadership.
I totally agree in a national funding formula, but rural areas should simply have their budgets increased rather than soaking money away from big cities with their higher staffing costs and greater student deprivation, with its associated problems.
The government should be ploughing money into education instead of desk jockeys assuming that schools operate like a weekly shopping list and we can all just go to a metaphorical Lidl instead of Waitrose.
What drives me nuts is the dishonesty of the government claiming that they have maintained the education budget. It makes me want to scream.
Michael Gove wrote in The Times this week that schools have never been so well funded and that the government is simply reducing funding to the levels of a few years ago.
This may be true to the extent that core budgets have been protected, but it fails to recognise the other cuts, the massive increase in student numbers and the enormous rise in costs – who on earth decided that getting schools to pay a yearly £25,000 apprenticeship levy from September was a good idea?
You are charged this whether or not you take on an apprentice and if you do, you have to pay the salary on top, which all adds up to the equivalent cost of a teacher…who you now have to cut.
I’m in my eighth year now of headship and it really has been a privilege to have touched so many lives and helped lead a school out of the chaos of special measures. However, I must confess I’ve totally lost faith in the system and I feel terribly sad.
I still love working with the kids and I love my staff – ironically morale is really high. I’ve tried hard to insulate them from the crazy politics of accountability, the madness of curriculum change and the pain of cuts, but in September I can’t hide it anymore.
I’m looking at supersets of 100 kids for my strongest teachers (“Well done, here’s your class list….”) and doubling my own teaching load from six hours per week currently.
I’m cutting three non-core subjects completely – children will no longer be taught how to play music; how to cook; how to sew.
I’m reducing pastoral support, attendance support and cutting SLT. We will no longer be able to maintain such high discipline support for my teachers, which will no doubt mean a vicious decline in behaviour. And still the sums quite simply just don’t add up. I’ve nothing else to cut.
I am Mrs Twitt, tying a million balloons to the school to stretch it as far as I can, knowing that something will snap.
Oliver Joseph is an inner-city secondary academy head in the north of England