Editorial - Put down the machete, Mr Balls

25th September 2009 at 01:00
Education recognises the need to cut costs, but slash and burn is no way to proceed

It would appear that many heads and senior staff are surplus to requirements. From last Sunday's sofas, Ed Balls did his bit to chip away at our enormous public debt by selflessly offering up #163;2 billion worth of savings from his education budget. The Schools Secretary explained that his priority was to protect frontline services and so his cuts would be carefully confined to non-essential sundries - stationery, Biros, paper-pushers and headteachers.

A rather impressive #163;750 million could be saved by not replacing senior staff through natural wastage and encouraging more schools to federate, he argued. Federation has obviously worked in Whitehall - just look at the efficiencies achieved by merging social work with education and business with universities. It is surely the way forward for schools!

What a riot of emotions must have been felt by heads up and down the country when they heard the news. Were they chuffed to learn that Government was so confident in their leadership abilities that it thought nothing of tossing them a couple of extra schools to handle? Or miffed to discover that they weren't on the frontline at all and rather less essential than the person who mucked out the paint pots?

Perhaps, above all, they were perplexed. Was this the same Mr Balls who six months earlier had assured them that, "time and time again ... I've seen and heard how great headteachers are making the biggest difference and transforming the lives of children and young people in our country". And who went on to say: "The most important feature (of the education white paper) will be how we back our local leaders and spread the benefits of good leadership across the system." Obviously, the word "thinly" was omitted in error before "spread".

This Government, whatever its faults, has a creditable record when it comes to recognising how good leaders are essential for good schools. It has understood that without an excellent head even the best teachers will struggle. It invested impressive sums to improve leadership - recruitment drives, training courses, even a nifty college up in Nottingham with a lake attached.

Post-recession, everyone accepts that severe economies have to be made. But there is a difference between planned pruning and unthinking slashing. There is surely no better way to discredit what may be a perfectly reasonable policy in the right circumstances than to sell it as a cost-cutting measure. I say federate, you mean eviscerate. Our schools, which already have trouble recruiting heads (pages 18-19), face an exodus of experienced leaders as 25 per cent reach retirement in the next five years. Is it rational or economic to deplete our senior ranks so severely only to pay dearly for it in a few years' time?

Most schools foresaw some time ago that money would be tight and trimmed accordingly. Indeed, many have a surplus. They, unlike Government, are adept at budgeting. They understand that times will get even harder. They expect that good judgment to be reciprocated. They do not deserve panic-stricken policy-making.

Gerard Kelly, Editor; E: gerard.kelly@tes.co.uk.

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