The message coming out of Westminster, over the next few months, will be “Get Ready”. Following the various announcements about education over the weekend, my response back – at no cost – would be “Get Real”.
Let’s start with the positive: the announcement of an additional £14 billion for education, over three years from 2020, is a significant change of direction. No more ministers providing misleading statements about how schools have more funding than ever before.
There’s an acceptance that, without some commitments to more school funding, education could be a big vote loser for the incumbent government.
However, once increased pupil numbers and cost-of-inflation rises are accounted for, the increased funding is likely to be seen as welcome, rather than generous or what is needed.
School funding pledge 'dubious'
The £5,000 per-pupil for secondary schools and £4,000 a year later for primary schools is largely targeted at more affluent areas and selective schools, many in areas where the Conservative Party needs to retain or take seats. It is a politically sound strategy, but an educationally dubious one, possibly.
With many school leaders returning to school this week, a summer of worrying about budgets will turn into the immediate task of resolving the gap produced in many schools’ budgets by the limited pay increase for teachers.
Undermining and damaging
Many of us actually working in schools, in the most difficult and austere budgetary times I’ve experienced in two decades, are beginning to tire of the pen-pushing bureaucrats and their calls for efficiency. We’ve done that. We’ve been efficient.
What is really being demanded is: “How do you intend to further undermine and damage children and young people’s education by reducing the opportunities, support or resources available to them?” Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to say, "We won’t," and demand more funding now.
If there is a general election in the near future, opposition parties are likely to promise significantly in excess of Friday’s £14 billion for education. While a 10-year funding plan for education will take time and discussion before being realised, there are some immediate actions that are required and possible.
Here are three quick wins, I suggest:
Quick win 1
Fund the other 2 per cent of the school teachers’ pay award. The teachers’ pay grant is already set up and can be increased beyond the 0.75 per cent funding promised to the full 2.75 per cent.
Quick win 2
Protect the most vulnerable in our society. Increase the high-needs block funding – again in-year – by £1 billion. It could be linked to local authorities agreeing to reverse any 0.5-1.0 per cent top-slicing of the direct school grant block, again putting funding back into schools, quickly.
In addition, a one-off uplift to pupil-premium funding (this could be consolidated – or not – in future years) would benefit schools working in the most challenging and deprived areas. Again, the funding mechanisms are in place.
Quick win 3
An immediate uplift in post-16 funding before the sector falls over.
Ducking the big issues
In addition, Sunday’s announcements don’t add up to much. They deal with matters that are largely peripheral and duck the big strategic issues we are facing.
Ofsted, including the current chief inspector, has been desperate to reinspect "outstanding" schools as a matter of course. I’m ambivalent. The bigger issue for the inspectorate is whether its stated aim to improve education is being realised.
How about if, now that Ofsted is inspecting the previously exempt "outstanding" schools, it is no longer allowed to inspect the stuck schools and the schools no one wants? After all, given that it has inspected them for 25 years and not managed to improve them, to continue to do so is arguably a total waste of time and taxpayers’ money.
We need a different approach. And – hey presto! – a “specialist academy trust” will be trialled in the North of England.
But we’ve already been there and done that. It didn’t work. Trusts that have taken over the most challenging schools have struggled. A couple of years down the line, the academy they took over is once again deemed "inadequate".
No idea and no ideas
The view from Westminster is that the North needs to get its act together. The politicians have no idea and no ideas. The reality is the North of England just has substantially more children and young people who live in long-term, deep disadvantage.
Irrespective of the geographical region in England that this group is found in, their underperformance is depressingly similar. What some think is a school-effectiveness issue is actually a school-intake issue. These are different and require different solutions.
Funding is one element of this solution. I’m tired of explaining that if Blackpool schools were funded at the level of many London schools, most of the secondaries would see a near 50 per cent increase in funding per annum.
There also needs to be another look at pupil-premium funding. There is a huge difference between a young person sitting their GCSEs who has spent 16 years in deep, deep poverty and another whose family hit on hard times for a number of months. The quantum of need is different in educational terms, and so should the quantum of funding.
As with the specialist academy trust idea, T levels sound suspiciously like the diplomas from a decade ago, and may well be doomed to a similar fate. The current obsession with the EBacc – evolved from a liberal-arts curriculum designed for the landed gentry – as the most desirable curriculum means we continue to see vocational education as second best.
Our primary and secondary education system has become an 11-years preparation for university: an aspiration and reality for fewer than half our pupils. Others want the dignity, respect and life chances that come from high-value employment through a vocational route. We need both if we are to raise communities out of poverty.