Why education is in a (very English) spot of bother

Understatement is typically British. But describing school funding as 'a bit tight'? It's not on, says Bernard Trafford

English understatement: How can education secretary Gavin Williamson claim that schools funding is 'a bit tight', asks Bernard Trafford

Understatement is an endearingly British trait. Battle of Britain heroes, for example, would routinely talk self-deprecatingly about participating in “a bit of a scrap” or being in “a tight spot”, when in fact they’d been fighting for their lives and country against enormous odds.

The tradition of describing life-and-death moments in the manner of episodes from Winnie the Pooh continues to this day. When a colleague is late for a meeting, murmuring, “Sorry, bit of a difficult morning,” we know that description could signify anything from the car refusing to start to a major gas explosion demolishing their house at the same time as a web-scammer empties out their bank account.

Colourful colloquialism is arguably more attractive than the routinely robotic utterances from government spokespeople, such as those at the Department for Education, who repeat with monotonous regularity the mantra that government is pouring record funding into schools.

You’ll see where I’m going. There’s charming understatement – and there’s plain crass insensitivity.

School funding: 'A bit tight'?

This is an inappropriate time for Gavin Williamson, questioned about the schools funding crisis, to emulate a latter-day Biggles, downplaying the moment when the balloon went up. 

But he did. The education secretary told the BBC that, having a wife and brother who are teachers, he does “occasionally get it in the ear… that things have been a bit tight in schools and they’ve needed a little bit of extra money”.

A bit tight? Even Dad’s Army’s Sergeant Wilson, played by the gloriously laconic John Le Mesurier, would have balked at describing a £14 billion shortfall as needing “a little bit of extra money”. 

Sadly, Mr Williamson is not alone in displaying out-of-touch political blindness. As Amy Gibbons reminded us in Tes, last year former Chancellor Philip Hammond found schools an additional £400 million for “the little extras they need”

So what are those “little extras”, and why does it feel “a bit tight” in schools? I’ll highlight some recent examples. Just this week The Times reported that councils were “siphoning off” (I quote the term pejoratively while acknowledging that it’s done in desperation) £400 million of precious money from schools in order to fund special-needs support

No money in the system

Some 354,000 children have bespoke education and health care plans (EHCPs), the successor to statements of special educational needs. These require schools and local authorities to provide individually tailored support: for example, 15 hours per week of one-to-one, in-class support from a teaching assistant. All in the system would agree that such targeted aid is essential, if the child is to be able to gain access to the curriculum and thrive in mainstream school.

Schools don’t always cover themselves in glory in this area. SEN training for teachers remains insufficient, to be sure. But, above all, there isn’t the money in the system. There’s growing evidence that even those legally required hours of support frequently aren’t provided. 

Attempting miracles with inadequate resources, headteachers are understandably resentful. The description by one of EHCPs as a “golden ticket” made me uncomfortable. Yet it was logical in context, since the concentration on ECHP funding (insufficient in itself) has left schools shorter than ever of cash, making impossible a range of earlier interventions that might render an EHCP unnecessary in the long term.

Bad show

In desperation, and sometimes because (unworthily) schools lean on the parents of children likely to pull down their vital exam or progress scores, increasing numbers are opting to home-educate. This is not done out of a philosophical search for an alternative, but out of sheer weariness at battling a mean and inflexible system.

Meanwhile, we learn that 70 per cent of teachers are working way beyond their contracted hours. No wonder unsustainable numbers are still leaving the profession: too much is being asked of teachers and TAs alike.

These are just recent snapshots of what’s regularly termed a serious situation, even a crisis. But the one thing it shouldn’t be called, in gung-ho understatement worthy of the myopic Captain Mainwaring, is “a bit tight”. 

All I can say to the education secretary, in similar style, is, “Bad show! Bad egg!” Or, in old school-report terminology, “Must do better."

Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher. He tweets @bernardtrafford

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