In all the 59 years I knew my Mum, I rarely saw her angry, but one occasion sticks in my mind. She was entertaining some visiting Americans, a nice enough family, who displayed their somewhat complacent, if understandable, ignorance of what ordinary people here lived through during the Second World War (Mum was 17 in 1939).
She went rather pink, drew herself up to her full 5’ 3” and declared: “We were hungry. For six years we went without, made do and mended. We didn’t waste anything: and what we couldn’t eat went in the pig bin at the end of the street.”
I don’t recall what precisely touched that nerve: but it connects in my memory with that oft-repeated Dad’s Army rhetorical question: “Don’t you know there’s a war on?”
In his recent Tes interview, secretary of state Damian Hinds adopted a similar tone, albeit in a 21st-century austerity-era context: “Within the financial constraints that we had, and we did have financial constraints, and you saw that not just in the Department for Education but across the government departments in terms of having to have some continued restraint on pay…”
Crikey! There I was thinking that the DfE’s monotonously robotic spokesperson was some lowly functionary (or machine), not the boss!
Having justified the government’s meanness, Mr Hinds slapped school leaders in the face by defending what is, in effect, a pay-cut. Sanctimoniously he observed, “it was most important to focus more of the money on those in the lower half of the pay distribution”.
Now, on one level that might be fair. If, in a tight spot, we have only one cake to share, presumably an equitable division would give more to those most in need. But there’s a willful disingenuousness in the education secretary’s utterances.
To be sure, ministers have to fight their corner with Treasury, and the push for austerity continues. But that doesn’t render the decision just –there should be more money!
“Don’t you know there’s austerity on?” Mr Hinds didn’t quite cry, Corporal Jones-like, but his own government determined the size of the cake.
To claim some kind of virtue in giving that inadequate sum to lower-paid teachers is dishonest. All teachers should have received 3.5 per cent: that’s the collegial approach. Anything else is insulting to those excluded.
It’s smoke and mirrors. The government says it will find the extra money in October, but schools must find the first 1 per cent of the cost of living increase when they are already cutting staffing and subjects.
Adding insult to injury, the department has recently issued guidance on money-saving and fundraising, as if schools hadn’t already tried everything! Some 4 per cent of school turnover is currently achieved through extra income raised by such activities as renting out facilities.
But it’s the classic Catch-22. Try telling politicians you can’t manage, and you get a pretty dusty response. Add to that 4 per cent with some creative income-creation or cost-cutting, and you’re congratulated – but you’ll be required to do still more with even less in future years.
Besides, it’s not raising the last 4 per cent that’s the problem: it’s making do with 96 per cent of an inadequate 100 per cent.
I burn with resentment on behalf of my former colleagues in schools, academies and, still more, FE colleges who do the impossible and, when it comes to their own salaries, get a slap in the face, with mealy-mouthed justification from the minister in charge.
Perhaps Westminster doesn’t know the story of the farmer who, fearing his horse was costing him too much to keep, gave it a little less food each day. When, after a couple of months, the horse died, its owner commented: “That’s a shame, it had almost got used to living on nothing at all.”
No. They wouldn’t get it.
Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist and musician. He is a former headteacher of the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle, and past chair of HMC. He tweets @bernardtrafford