'There are elements to applaud in Justine Greening's approach, but it'll mean little without extra funding'

The DfE has clearly been doing some thinking, but with thousands of schools at risk of going under, we need more money before anything else, writes one headteachers' leader

Paul Whiteman

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The big education headlines from the Conservative conference have mainly been about higher education, but the focus on additional support for early language and literacy is also extremely welcome.

At the NAHT headteachers’ union, we’ve been talking about this for some time.

Our recent report on "School Readiness" highlighted that an increasing number of children are starting school with poor communication skills. We will wait with interest to see the detail of these plans. 

The government knows that education was one of the policy areas where they were most out of step with public opinion during the general election. Nearly a million people changed their votes on polling day because they didn’t like what the Conservatives were proposing for schools and young people.

This week shows that the government has taken the summer to rethink, because there were elements of the Secretary of State’s address that we ought to welcome.

I’m not interested in the conflict language of whether a policy announcement is or isn’t a U-turn. Politicians need room to adjust their position if they are to serve the country well.

Justine Greening's proposals

NAHT has led the calls for the government to take action to address the recruitment and retention crisis in schools and Sunday’s announcement is a welcome step in the right direction.

Justine Greening’s proposals for new investment in tailored support for schools facing the acutest recruitment challenges, alongside new pilot programmes to test loan forgiveness and stretched bursaries are welcome recognition that the current situation is unsustainable.

Leaders in eligible schools will welcome any support that might help them recruit and retain good teachers. However, unless there is concerted effort to improve underlying pay levels, working conditions and the status of the profession, these steps are unlikely to have much impact.

Should these new pilots show early promise, we would urge the government to roll them out to all parts of the country without delay, so that all schools facing staffing challenges might benefit.

Yet it appears that the Treasury continues to unreasonably constrain the efforts of the profession by not backing the DfE with meaningful additional funds, even when faced with overwhelming evidence of need.

Meaningful change will not be achieved without real investment. The chancellor’s speech this morning will need to include an announcement of more investment in schools in order for NAHT and others to feel that our concerns are really being understood in Whitehall.

A long-term commitment to funding schools fully and fairly is now long overdue. We’ve written to him today to that effect.

Schools in deficit

The Department for Education’s own data says that roughly a third of all schools are already in deficit. Seven out of 10 NAHT members say that their budgets will be untenable by the end of the next academic year. We can’t wait any longer for the money. Subjects are being dropped, support is being reduced, class sizes are increasing. This will do nothing to improve the equality of opportunity, right across the country, we would all like to see.

Whatever policy announcements you make, you cannot do better than funding education fully and fairly and treating teachers well and paying them properly. Unfortunately, that is not happening at the moment.

What most people in education crave is some stability, a good run of years with no big changes. But you can’t really put that kind of thing in a speech and expect the conference crowd to go wild.

Commendably, Justine Greening’s speech demonstrated that she cares less about exciting a friendly crowd and more about trying to focus on some of the right areas.

All too often, her predecessors have been distracted by eye-catching changes to structure, which become an unnecessary distraction from the pursuit of improvement rather than a part of the overall picture. 

The main question now is whether the chancellor will be willing to do what the country knows is necessary and find the £2bn a year that schools need as a minimum to stay solvent.

It will take bravery because finding the money is a different approach from now. But, as I say, politicians should not see adjusting a position to do the right thing as a negative. Sure, some will cry U-turn but the profession, governors, parents and children will welcome the news. Spending on education is not a future debt, it is an investment in all our futures. The only winner will be the UK.

Mr Hammond, it’s time to do the right thing.

Paul Whiteman is general secretary designate of the NAHT headteachers’ union. He tweets @PaulWhiteman6

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