All bite and no bark

2nd October 2015 at 01:00

Where are the dogs who bark in the night to warn us of the robbers who are ransacking our schools? There’s a lot to bark about and precious little barking.

Consider: it isn’t simply curriculum and exam change being implemented before advice arrives on how to do it. To that we must also add the prospect of a chronic and in some places acute shortage of teachers.

As if these two problems were not enough, there comes the worst squeeze on school budgets since the 1920s. “Protecting the age-weighted pupil unit”, as the Conservatives euphemistically put it before the election, means dwindling finances as inflation (in pension and other staffing costs) takes its toll. As TES has noted, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies this will lead to a 12 per cent cut in real terms by 2020.

But that’s not all. As the prime minister promised again last week, the government will be introducing a so-called “fairer national funding formula”. For a school in Tower Hamlets in East London, this could mean a further cut of 13 per cent. That’s cumulatively 25 per cent, which translates into getting rid of 50 staff in a secondary with 200 or 20 in a primary with 80.

As one London headteacher wrote to me last week, “Other than the cost of living, which is driving out staff, and the fact that a significant number of schools have expanded and used up the ‘surplus’ staff, the pressure that schools are under is just too much. Don’t even mention school budgets.” Despite the manifold problems, this missive was, like so many from school leaders, filled with a determination to be unwarrantedly optimistic.

So where are the dogs who will bark about any of this? Well, they’re not the local politicians who, with nationalised school budgets, are naturally inclined to bark about the savage cuts to services whose budgets they do control, such as housing, services for the elderly, the frail and the mentally ill. Nor dare the headteachers or governors of individual schools advertise their budgetary difficulties in what is rapidly becoming a free market of competing schools.

At the time of the last major cuts in the 1970s and 1980s, which were trivial by comparison with what is coming now, chief education officers (of which I was one) could be relied on to speak out – and were listened to. So who will speak up now?

Some leaders of academy chains could – such as Jon Coles at United Learning, Steve Munby at the CfBT Education Trust, Sir Daniel Moynihan at the Harris Federation and Lucy Heller at Ark Schools. And joint articles from them would be powerful.

The teaching unions might fall into the category of “Well, they would say that…”, but the National Governors’ Association would get a serious hearing. There certainly needs to be something: perhaps a body analogous to the expenditure steering group of the 1970s and 1980s.

There’s one brave task for Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw. He needs to give voice to what politicians will not, and system leaders dare not, say. He has a notorious bark on other issues. He should use it about the cuts.

Sir Tim Brighouse is a former schools commissioner for London

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