‘Flexibility’ and ‘freedom’ within a funding straitjacket

You may not yet have seen the advertisements that the Department for Education (DfE) have chosen to run in response to the teacher shortage that they seem reluctant to publicly acknowledge. Before they had even been broadcast they were subject to a complaint to the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) as reported in Schools Week.

The complaint concerns the claim that new teachers can earn ‘up to £65k’ per annum in the profession, which those raising it believe is misleading given the small percentage who actually earn that now. Upon reading the article, I observed that a far easier route to making money out of state education, which did not seem to even involve any teaching, had been reported in that weekend’s Observer.

money to burnThe paper revealed that an academy chain containing 11 primary schools and a secondary had paid around £800,000 over two years to ‘consultants’ with direct links to the trustees . For context, that would be close to the full year’s budget for a one form entry primary school. The casual observer would be forgiven for concluding that state education is awash with money if they could afford to move this sum from their schools’ budgets.

The exact opposite is the case however which is why I read the DfE’s response to the ASA complaint with interest. Sadly it only prompted feelings of déjà vu:

“Teachers play a vital role in raising standards and ensuring all pupils can reach their full potential. That is why we have given all heads much greater flexibility to set staff pay and reward their best teachers with a pay rise.”

Theoretically this is true, but the statement, once again, does not reveal the parameters of that ‘flexibility’.

As revealed prior to the general election by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), schools face cuts of between 8-12% to their budgets over the next five years. In addition, annual pay rises for teachers are capped at 1% for the same period. So it follows that the ‘flexibility’ afforded to headteachers is definitively restricted by individual school budgets and could be dependent on other teachers receiving no rise at all.

Indeed, it is not difficult to see why a move into the profession may not look quite so appealing given the cap and go some way to explain why retaining teachers is also becoming an increasingly serious challenge.

What concerns me about this use of language by the DfE is that it presents a false impression to parents while also subtly moving the responsibility for the effects of budget cuts onto individual schools.

Ignorance of the situation is excusable for most parents but indicators are already in evidence locally. When it was reported last month that Brentwood’s largest secondary school, St Martin’s, is consulting on making 14 Teaching Assistants redundant the article focussed on the possible effect on SEND provision, but we should also be asking why the school with the town’s biggest budget is “striving to save £250k per year”. st martins

Other recent local developments must also be viewed against this background, the expansion of Pupil Admission Numbers in several schools including Chelmsford’s grammars for example which will have a knock on effect for other schools in the area. The effect on resources of the decision to open three free schools in an area of surplus places has been well covered by this blog but pressing on with a multi-million brand new build seems even more perverse given these cuts.

Funding also affects student choice of curricula. Much has been made of ‘parental choice’ but, as I have warned many times, it risks cutting the curricula choice of students. It is instructive that an increasing number of schools are offering little beyond ‘traditional subjects’ and marketing that as a virtue.

So while the government claims that teachers “have the freedom to shape the curriculum to their pupils’ needs”, the nature of that ‘freedom’ is dubious to say the least. As funding becomes tighter it becomes more of a challenge to fund the staff to maintain a broad curricula offer. When you then add in the accountability system that places a higher value on some subjects than others and an explicit mandating of specific core subjects by the DfE and you begin to wonder if the ‘freedom’ you speak of would be more familiar to Kim Jong-un.

There is one other area currently largely hidden from parental view that will be affected by pressure on budgets. Schools Week have reported since the summer on concerns about the viability of school sixth form provision where numbers do not allow a broad enough offer. Two sixth forms were reported as closing last month and the fear is that this may be indicative of a potential national problem following successive years of cuts to sixth form budgets over and above the projected overall school budgets cuts. The DfE are currently reviewing the criteria for new sixth forms in this context.

Locally, the Brentwood Ursuline revealed their intention to expand their sixth form from 175 to 250 pupils, facilitated by the decision to become co-educational in Y12 & 13 for the first time in their history. It will be interesting to see how successful this will be and how provision in Brentwood develops as the free schools seek to add to the post-16 options that already exist in the town and beyond.

Schools are working hard to ensure that budget cuts have as little negative effect on learners as possible but the DfE, in their use of language, are presenting the situation as one where choices are numerous and resources are plentiful. It is therefore very confusing for parents when staffing cuts are announced or the curriculum their young person was expecting to have access to shrinks. They can only conclude that the head is not using his ‘freedoms’ wisely and cannot think ‘flexibly’.

By being honest about the parameters that schools are having to operate in we improve the chances of positive parental and community engagement in support of our schools.

Doing the opposite looks like passing the budget cut buck.

Stephen Mayo

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