Last gasp for funding
I am the headteacher of a small 11-18 comprehensive at the head of a Welsh Valley. In my recent speech at our annual presentation ceremony I reiterated something that I believed as a probationary teacher, back in 1974, and still believe to this day:
"Essentially teaching is a simple job when the basics are right - good buildings and resources, adequate funding, a varied and relevant curriculum delivered by skilled specialist staff to pupils who want to learn - and for a society that is prepared to support what schools do."
Unfortunately, the basics are not right in Wales - far from it. Like most heads I have always been reluctant to go public, because no head wants to complain openly about any issue which, by association, could imply some negativity about his or her own school.
However, I've been round the block a bit now and know what a lot of heads actually say to each other about the current state of education in Wales in relation to these basics.
The obvious and most significant "basic-gone-wrong" issue is resources.
This is the first concern of virtually every head in Wales, whether working in primary or secondary. It is the one that gives me more sleepless nights than anything else.
When heads in England are falling over money to develop initiatives, why is the situation so desperate in Wales? I choose the word desperate without exaggeration. The total amount of money taken out of our delegated budget in the past five years is staggering.
It has been a management challenge of epic proportions. But no one seems to be championing the fight against it, and heads' objections are simply dismissed.
Since January 2000 our school curriculum has been rationalised to accommodate the cuts, and eight members of staff (including a deputy head) have left and not been replaced.
Pupil numbers have decreased by 45 over the same period. The range of choices for students has been significantly reduced at key stages 4 and 5 with drama, A-level sociology, psychology and Spanish disappearing altogether from our school curriculum, and serious reductions being made in the option choices of physical education, religious education and business studies.
Lack of funding affects the variety of our curriculum, and money set aside by the Welsh Assembly government for the 14-19 learning pathways curriculum is nothing short of farcical.
A course that my school started along these lines in the past by working with our nearest tertiary college had worked well as a pilot, but subsequently folded due to budget cuts.
As a secondary school we recognise the importance of meeting the curriculum needs of all pupils, we know how to do it and we are not asking for the moon - or perhaps we are.
When will we ever get curriculum-led funding? It should be easy enough to deliver in Wales in this day and age.
Good buildings and resources should be another given. Fortunately things are moving, albeit slowly, on this front. But we will have to wait and see where we are in 2010 to judge whether the Assembly government's targets are being met.
What of the most recent initiatives? Well, just when I thought things could not get any worse, the Assembly government has come up trumps again. It now has a new ball to play with which is called Raise, funded by Chancellor Gordon Brown's benevolence to schools in his last budget.
In Wales, the lion's share will go to raise standards in schools which have a free school meals (FSM) index greater than 20 per cent. So how much will we get in our socially deprived area with some of the most disadvantaged wards in Wales, where the Communities First initiative operates and where unemployment rates and poor-health rates are high?
As an improving school, how much of this funding can I look forward to as our reward for progress? Sums of the size going elsewhere to other comparable schools would help bail us out at a stroke. How much? Surprise, surprise, the answer is a big fat zero.
Although our 2006 FSM index is more than 20 per cent, the Assembly government has selected a three-year average and ours works out to be 19.2 per cent. It seems to defy reasonable logic.
Of course there will be a stream of people coming to monitor us to see how we are applying the government's policies - and there is no shortage of those.
It seems that every way I turn expectations on us as a school are being constantly cranked up at a rate almost faster than resources are being taken away. It is life without a support base.
David Rose is head of Ysgol Maes-y-Dderwen, Ystradgynlais, Swansea
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