I'm the head of a medium-sized and ”good” secondary school with growing numbers in Wirral, and I wish I could do something give my pupils the message that somebody out there values them as highly as I do. Instead, I have to pinch every penny and “make do” with things I know should be so much better.
The same is true across my local authority. I chair the local schools’ forum (the advisory body that makes recommendations to the local government about the distribution of educational funding and steers the money to where the consensus of local opinion feels that it is best spent) and this gives me a broader insight to the state of finances than most. In Wirral, things are not going terribly wrong, at least not yet. In fact, from an outside viewpoint, things would appear to be rosy:
- 90 per cent of early years providers are good or outstanding.
- 95 per cent of those entitled are able to take up the early years 2-year-old offer.
- Almost 70 per cent of children achieve a good level of development at foundation stage.
- 90 per cent of schools are good or better.
- Overall achievement at key stage 4 is good.
Standards will suffer
But I know that, within the next two academic years, six out of every 10 local authority schools in Wirral will be in deficit.
This is despite the fact that, for the last six years, we have been making redundancies, cutting budgets and making “efficiencies” in every area from early years to post 16. There are simply no more savings to be made, yet funding continues to lag behind inflation. And when the national funding formula kicks in 2020, we're on our own. There needs to be more investment in our schools or standards will suffer.
These deficits are not selective, the local authority within which I work has as diverse a range of schools and academies as you could hope to find, from grammar schools to co-ed comprehensives, all-through schools, single sex 11-16 and everything else in between. The promise of “a bit extra for grammar schools” does not solve the problem. We are all struggling, desperately trying to make ends meet, and still being asked to fill gaps left by cuts in social services and health.
Students are working harder now than they have ever done, (certainly they are more focused than I was when I was their age) but the strain takes its toll and the social pressures they face are immense. The same is true of my staff: they work tirelessly to make sure their lessons are challenging and engaging, their marking is effective, and they willingly give up their time to support the wider life of the school.
I wish that I had better resources to support them, but I don’t.
Cuts close 'the only way out'
Class sizes have increased and will continue to do so, services and support teams have already been reduced. Within my local authority, there are significantly deprived communities for whom education is the only way out. In one of those communities, the secondary school has just closed because it was financially unviable.
Children from these communities need support, like those with all other additional needs. It's the same children who will be among the first to suffer from a reduction in additional services. And without the funds to open up curricular and extracurricular opportunities, our super-talented high-achievers risk being squashed into the same “one size fits none” box some schools are being pushed towards.
After speaking to my colleagues at our schools’ forum, and listening to their worries, I felt compelled to write directly to the secretary of state for education to share these concerns. This is not something I would normally do, but I can see no change in the near future and these issues are a real concern to me and my colleagues. I still await his reply.
Adrian Whiteley is the chair of Wirral Schools Forum and the headteacher of the Mosslands School