This time last week, I felt very odd. It was a feeling I hadn’t felt for a while. It was almost a feeling of, dare I say it, hope?
I’d just heard that schools minister Lord Agnew had been moved on from the Department for Education and our indicative funding for next year looked OK. My school continued to be growing, successful and oversubscribed, and the promised Boris Bonus money looked like it might actually materialise. And I had a thought, although I barely dared to articulate it: were we finally emerging from the black hole that we have been in for the last five years?
Of course, my hope was in vain. Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman’s hastily withdrawn (but not retracted) report on school funding snuffed out the flicker of light from my candle of hope and slammed us back into the walls of the dark dungeon of despair once again.
As a school business leader, the last few years have been horrific. We have had our funding slashed, year after year, we’ve had to refine, reduce, rethink and restructure to a point where we have been firing flares to the DfE daily, warning them that our schools are starting to crumble, financially and structurally. Along with our heads, we have tried everything in our power to maintain our frontline provisions while cutting back every single budget line we have. And for all of us, without fail, the very last thing we have wanted to do is to let our students feel the impact of those scathing cuts.
But some staffing cuts have been inevitable, curriculum provision, teaching load and class sizes have been pushed to their limits in order to protect teaching posts so that we can carry out our basic legal requirement to put a qualified teacher in front of every class. We have done this all day every day for five years. We are experts at it now, even if we didn’t want to be. There is no longer a headteacher in the country that can leave their finances up to the business manager: school finance and staying afloat have been the overwhelming focus of our strategic and operational attention for so long.
We have suffered the ignominy of listening to the repeated and since-disproved Theresa May mantra of more funding going into schools than ever before. We have been humiliated and infuriated by Agnew’s public claims that we are inefficient and ineffective. We have seen his army of cost-cutters march onto our horizons and into our schools and we have been threatened with funding being withheld if we do not carry out their demands. (Demands? Wait – I meant "recommendations" – apologies.)
A narrative has been created by Whitehall that heads and business leaders are incapable of managing their budgets and have been wilfully wasting public money on overpriced projects and contracts, without due care or protocol. This narrative has no basis in fact. Yet it is a narrative that has served the purpose of allowing funding cuts to be implemented and to be seen as permissable. We are at the point where schools can barely function but the narrative continues, rolled out time and time again under the guise of prudence and support from a stern but supportive patriarch to his surly and foolish charges.
And although these spendthrift schools are the same schools that were previously accused of amassing large surplus funds, and despite the fact that the SRMA programme has been less than successful in implementing the promised savings, the public has been fed – and have believed – the line that schools, and school leaders cannot manage their money. And so successful has this narrative been that now even Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector has seen fit to speculate that if schools were to receive more funding, they might well squander it on the wrong things. How dare she?
If squandering means reinstating the teaching assistants that we have had to make redundant, if it means actively re-seeking experienced teachers rather than cheaper NQTs, if it means buying back in quality mental health provision for our students in crisis, and if it means being able to run GCSE and A level courses with less than 20 students in, then hell yes, we will squander it.
Spielman also voices her concerns that we may not have fully considered the impact of our financial decisions on our student outcomes. Perhaps the 18 heads who Ofsted spoke to in their survey didn’t fully explain or represent the torturous painstaking hell that their 32,000 other headteacher colleagues have been through over recent years as they agonised over what to cut and how to manage without it? But our stories are out there, our evidence is plentiful and freely available. As the lead inspector of an organisation that exists to make evidence-based judgements on school performance, Spielman appears to be remarkably ill-informed and evidence-light on her school funding proclamations.
And as insulting, infuriating and inflammatory as her recent report is, it is the narrative it perpetuates that concerns me the most. A link has now been forged between Agnew’s agenda and Ofsted’s remit. Despite Spielman’s assurances that Ofsted does not oversee school finances, she seems to have positioned herself on a judgmental podium from which Ofsted is preparing to do exactly that.
The two towers are connected, a new order appears to have arisen. We can only hope that this disastrous start will serve to highlight the possibility that perhaps school leaders do, in fact, know how to do their jobs. And perhaps headteachers do know better than anyone how to run their schools. It may instead be Whitehall that requires a lesson in education from those best qualified to teach it.
Hilary Goldsmith is a school business manager in the south of England