How do we get better with a #163;2bn cut?

25th September 2009 at 01:00

Six months ago, Ed Balls, Schools Secretary, was insisting that school spending would be "ring-fenced against any future cuts in public spending". Fast forward to today and he is outlining plans for "a #163;2 billion reduction in the education budget". This dramatic u-turn has left me reeling and wondering what the next wild idea from the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) will be.

Of course, like Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling, Mr Balls conveniently hides behind "the financial realities". Perhaps we are supposed to feel sorry for him and dutifully cock our heads to one side in that rather patronising manner one becomes accustomed to if, like me, you like to ask challenging questions.

However, these are the same "financial realities" the country was facing six months ago, aren't they? Or has another bank just collapsed with the entire education budget in it? According to various reports Mr Balls then attempted to claw his way out of this hole by saying that the savings "would not necessarily mean an overall cut in the education budget". This high-speed oscillation from bad news to good news and back is reminiscent of watching an old edition of That's Life!

I am currently principal of a small 11-16 community college in Cambridge. Like all shire counties, school funding here has been dire for a long time, regardless of the economic meltdown. The Government consistently fails to understand that, just because the various deprivation indices show that this is a prosperous city, not all children enjoy a privileged upbringing and not all schools have well-heeled patrons on their governing bodies to help supplement the woefully inadequate direct schools grant.

We do the best we can with the little money we have to raise attainment and transform students' learning experience. And our strategies have worked. Over the last two years our results have improved significantly but we worry about our capacity to improve further, partly because of our lack of financial support.

We knew budget cuts were looming at national and local level. We are not blind to the economic climate and we certainly aren't asking for more money because this is unrealistic. However, the idea that any further cuts can be made to our budget is unthinkable.

We are definitely not alone. This is a concern for many schools and, if implemented, will surely lead to severe cuts in teaching and support roles nationwide.

It is also a concern for me to learn where Mr Balls believes that cuts can be made other than from "frontline services" - whatever this means.

This is the same man who introduced the National Challenge (which branded our school and others as "failing") and which contains a significant component entitled "Developing Stronger Management Systems". Yet he believes that cuts should be made in school leadership and management - specifically at deputy head level. These are the very people who have delivered the significant turnaround in many of our schools, working closely with the teaching and support staff taking very difficult and unpopular decisions.

So now, having delivered for the DCSF in many schools and having been criticised in the national press for being "government puppets" in enforcing their unfair targets, we now appear to be up for the chop! It seems that they would prefer one headteacher for every six schools.

I believe wholeheartedly in a good school for every child, and I think academies, for example, can be a powerful way to improve them. However, schools need people to lead them. The idea that this vitally important role can be disregarded and disrespected in this way horrifies me and will do nothing for the recruitment of new school and college leaders - which we all recognise is a national crisis.

Ben Slade, Principal, Manor Community College, Cambridge.

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