DfE selective hearing – follow the money…

I have broken my blogging hiatus in response to a conversation on Twitter that came to my attention yesterday. In response to a tweet from the Department for Education (DfE) regarding tips on improving mental health support in schools a headteacher responded by advising that they had just had to let their school counsellor go due to budget cuts.

The exchange illustrated once again the huge disconnect between DfE pronouncements and the reality in schools today. Fundamentally, there is only so much you can do with declining resources.

Behind the “there are more teachers than ever before” (ignoring that there are more schools than ever before) and “school budgets have been protected” (without mention of an up to 10% rise in employment costs) statements, there lies a truth that seemingly dare not speak its name: there is not enough money provided to schools to maintain educational standards let alone improve them.

Why is this stark recent decline in available finance so low in the public consciousness? The Twitter thread pointed to two reasons; heads are doing everything that they can think of to lessen the impact of cuts on their own students and no-one wants to speak up for fear that they and their school will be penalised.

It is a perhaps unforeseen side effect of the marketization drive of the last few years that no school wishes to be seen as having a disadvantage over other local schools for fear of losing pupils – and further revenue. To publicise where cuts have had to fall and the likelihood of further reduction in provision in future is a risky strategy for an individual head to take. This is particularly the case in areas such as ours where new schools have opened, despite a surplus of available places, and been provided with funds established schools can only dream of to build brand new facilities.

The greatest scandal of all being that this skewing of local provision – and rigging of the “market” – is purportedly to improve all schools in an area. I have never understood how taking away resource from existing schools is supposed to aid their improvement.

This twisted logic appears to now be present in the government’s latest wheeze: providing £250M to some of the wealthiest schools in the country to expand selective provision and “help” their under-resourced non-selective neighbours.

It seems an extraordinary policy change in the current educational financial climate to pursue, and preferentially finance, a policy that is presented as being of greatest benefit to those selected for access to certain schools. Many have pointed to the mountain of evidence showing that the social mobility claims in support of the policy are contradicted by the reality in existing selective areas. However, I am suspicious that this may miss a significant driver behind this proposal which is to distract from, and avoid dealing with, the state school funding crisis.

It is instructive that the DfE are choosing to promote this policy change by claiming that it is responding to the ‘popularity’ of selection amongst parents. It knows evidence does not show that selection benefits the majority so it targets a minority who think it may benefit them.

It is a very similar tactic to that which supported the free school movement. It is not a concern to individual parents how setting up a new school, or making a local school selective, will affect their neighbours. If a school is made available to their children that is better resourced or has new facilities why would they say no? They pay their taxes and either are not interested, accept the propaganda on how this will actually improve their neighbours or trust that the authorities will ensure they are not disadvantaged. That is why it is a dreadfully inefficient basis for school commissioning and also why my blood runs cold when Mrs May states that grammars will only open “where there is demand”.

A responsible government, committed to “schools that work for everyone”, would be truly concerned that schools are not financially penalised if they are not new or selective. However, that would require further money into the education coffers and mean some “difficult choices” or raising taxes. Easier perhaps to expand or create some schools that accommodate those children whose background and home circumstances make them more likely to academically achieve. Meanwhile any decline in standards in non-selective schools, with a resulting higher concentration of students who need more support to succeed, can be blamed on school leaders who failed to take the selective option (and, using the DfE’s logic, chose not to provide “good school places”).

Against this background, the grammar school debate is proving to be a useful red herring for the government and the Labour Party in particular have fallen for it. The biggest issues in education, and the ones that truly affect the capacity for school improvement, are real-terms budget cuts and the teacher recruitment and retention crisis. These are affecting pupils in existing schools now and should be central to any campaign in opposition to the direction of education policy. Instead, Labour campaign against segregation, compromised, as I am certain Mrs May calculated, by the fact that prominent MPs have used selective schools themselves.

The focus should instead be on relentlessly highlighting the effect that “flat cash” is already having on schools which most parents send their children to and showing that the government’s plans are designed to only provide opportunities to a tiny percentage of parents who have yet to make a school choice.

The NUT recently produced a very useful tool projecting the potential amount by which individual school budgets would be affected in the coming years. https://www.teachers.org.uk/ However, this could also have the effect of putting parents off certain schools in a locality as discussed earlier and deals with what might happen. I would prefer to see an easily accessed and regularly publicised ongoing register of the steps individual schools have had to take – including roles they have had to lose – to balance budgets whilst being expected to improve their school. This could be provided in confidence and should listed by town or area rather than individual school. A ready campaigning tool that would enable effective opposition and focus on the real issues facing schools now.

Only a sustained and relentless highlighting of the reality of the effect of “flat cash” will force this into public consciousness. Rather than deflecting attention and diverting parents with the (proportionally unlikely) future prospect of a better school for their child, the government will then have to account for what they are providing to improve schools for all parents. While expecting more money may be a forlorn hope, it may at least provide an admission that existing schools have less to work with and so school improvement expectations should be informed by that.

If as a society we chose to keep our tax bill down at the expense of the educational chances of our children then at least let’s be open about it. Diverting scarce resources to those that already have the most cannot assist the majority in education.

It only makes schools that work for the exchequer.

Stephen Mayo

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