The early May bank holiday is that rarest of treats for teachers: a bank holiday that actually feels like a bank holiday, as opposed to being absorbed into the usual breaks. A bonus day, in the season of tests and examinations, that allows just a little extra breathing space. So I spent mine with secretary of state for education Damian Hinds.
Last weekend, hundreds of headteachers, deputies, business managers and others were at the annual conference of the NAHT union to set policy for the direction of the association for the coming year. Alongside putting pressure on government to tackle significant issues, such as the growing threat of violence towards school staff and the flaws in the proposed new Ofsted framework, the most obvious topic of discussion was school funding.
It touches on so many other aspects of what schools are trying to deal with, not least because of the impact of reduced funding in so many other sectors. Whether it’s closing Sure Start centres, reducing central services at local authorities, or the ever-growing demands on social care, schools are becoming the last place of safety for pupils and families in need, and school budgets are trying to carry it all.
Mr Hinds appeared to concede that money was an issue, arguing that he’ll be putting the case to the Treasury when it comes to the comprehensive spending review – but there was little indication of any cash in the short term.
He also picked up on a particular strand that is close to the heart of every classroom teacher just as much as it is school leaders: the situation of funding for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities. Of course, he didn’t then go on to announce a significant increase in funding to meet those needs; instead, we got a "call for evidence".
The impact of SEND cuts
But surely the evidence is already there on a plate for him? It’s more than a year since the Commons Education Select Committee launched its inquiries into both school funding and SEND; neither shows any shortage of evidence on the challenges that schools face.
He even said himself that he heard about it frequently: “It’s not just the volume of support that has gone up. It’s also that the needs that vulnerable young people have – and the support that they require," Mr Hinds said. Teachers have been telling him, no doubt since he arrived in office, about the difficulties of providing adequate support for children with SEND.
Equally, all around the conference hall were headteachers and other school leaders with stories from their own settings. Accounts of special needs teaching assistants not being replaced each year; reductions in staffing leaving less support for the most needy children; dwindling support from local authorities leaving schools to pick up the bill for specialist support; waiting lists for special provision that leaves children in settings ill-suited to their needs.
The picture is clear nationally, too. Across the country, local authorities have taken funds from schools to transfer into their high-needs budgets to try to meet the needs of growing numbers of pupils facing the greatest challenges in their learning. In other areas, provision has reduced, with special schools closing or pupils unable to access suitable education at all.
What more evidence does the department need of the situation? The funding crisis is far from limited to pupils with SEND, but this is perhaps the area where the needs – and the shortcomings – are already most evident. If the secretary of state can’t see that for himself, then what hope have we that he – or the chancellor – will recognise the wider issue?
Michael Tidd is headteacher at Medmerry Primary School in West Sussex. He tweets @MichaelT1979