Around six months ago, I had the privilege of spending two days in a primary school in the north of England.
Just to provide a little context, the school in question is situated in the heart of one of the government’s much vaunted "opportunity areas".
A quick glance at the local statistics shows that this is a part of the country where employment, educational outcomes and health all lag significantly behind the national average. On paper this had the potential to be a really quite bleak visit.
The reality could not have been more different: it turned out to be one of the most memorable, inspiring and humbling experiences I have ever had during my time in education.
Upon our arrival, I was introduced to the school’s pastoral team and heard how in the space of just two months they had been dealing with three adult suicides within the staff and parent community. This team, made up largely of specially trained teaching assistants, explained how they had been providing emotional support and counselling to pupils, parents and staff during a desperately challenging time for all concerned.
This was just the tip of the iceberg. The school’s "vulnerable child" register demonstrated the scale of the task these dedicated professionals faced on a daily basis. The complexity and demanding nature of their work is hard to overstate. Supporting children and families experiencing domestic violence, extreme poverty and drug abuse are just a normal part of their day’s work.
However, there was not a hint of despair or resignation – quite the opposite. It was a school full of hope, warmth and smiling faces. Leaders, teachers and support staff alike were determined that this was a place where children would feel safe and happy. They would be fed, cared for and educated to the very best of their abilities. It’s probably worth mentioning at this point that last year the school achieved 9 per cent above the national average for attainment in reading, writing and maths combined.
As we toured the school we met a number of children with complex needs who were being supported brilliantly by both teachers and teaching assistants. We met a girl in Year 4 who was taking part in a one-to-one therapy session. Afterwards, the headteacher talked to me about some of the early traumatic experiences she had experienced and the long-term impact they had had on her and her relationships with adults and other children. He explained how this was her third school in two years – the previous two placements had broken down due to her challenging behaviour.
Throughout the two days, I was overwhelmed with admiration for the professionals I met and the way they were working tirelessly to improve the lives of these children. It was a visit that has stuck with me ever since.
Last week I received an email from that same headteacher.
He had just come from a meeting with seven of his staff in which he shared the news that, due to budget cuts, the school was about to have to implement a wave of staff redundancies. It now looks inevitable that some of those wonderful, dedicated professionals that I met just six months ago will not be there in September.
I find it hard to express how sad and angry this makes me feel.
We can spend forever debating the numbers and statistics. I can raise you an IFS report here, and the government can respond with an OECD analysis there, but frankly none of that matters a jot for that school, those children and those professionals.
They, like many others, are dealing with the harsh reality. The reality of a budget that is struggling to cope with the enormous cost pressures they are facing, and the constant need to step in and do the work that other agencies used to do on their behalf.
They have cut costs where they can. Resource budgets have been slashed and vital building repair works have been put on hold. There is nothing else left to cut, other than people.
At a purely human level, a single redundancy is a tragedy. These are people on extremely modest salaries who are going home this week worrying about how they are going to pay the bills.
But, putting the obvious and profound impact on these professionals to one side just for as moment, let’s just consider the impact on the school…
These children and their complex needs are not going away, these families are not going away and their problems are not going away. Who is going to step in and help now?
We know that social services and agencies such as Camhs are stretched to breaking point. The staff in this school acted as a lifeline so many of these families.
So I ask again, who will do that job now?
I know that the school will carry on doing the very best it can by these children – they know no other way. Those who are still there will redouble their efforts to help every child and family who needs it.
But the reality is that there will be fewer of them to do that work and because of that children and families will have to wait longer for the help they desperately need.
I know from experience that this school is not an isolated case. That’s why school leaders react with such anger when the government trots out its standard response about "record levels of funding going into schools". It’s also why we’re not going to stop standing up for these schools and their communities – their voices must continue to be heard.
James Bowen is the director of policy at NAHT and director of NAHT Edge