Fiona Millar – Common Ground

  • Fiona Millar – Common Ground

Whatever voters decide on May 7th, there are certain issues that any new Education Secretary will have no choice but to address, explains Fiona Millar…

A new parliament and government are on their way. We will know the shape of both in under three weeks. But how much difference will that make in schools? After a period of rapid reform, some slowing down in the pace of change is inevitable. All the main parties have more or less admitted that.

But several intractable issues are facing whoever becomes the next Education Secretary and will probably obscure the political dividing lines that are preoccupying us now.

The first is funding. Whoever wins on May 7 will have to return to a question that has been kicked into the long grass in the last five years. How do we ensure an equitable distribution of the overall schools budget across all areas?

Adding it up

The idea of a simple and more transparent funding formula has been kicking around for much of the last decade, for obvious reasons. We currently have a situation where funding per pupil in some areas is around £8000, in others it can be as low as between £4500. Of course money isn’t everything. There are plenty of examples of schools with generous funding and unremarkable achievement and vice versa.

But anyone involved in the success story of London schools (and I have been a parent and governor in London for over 20 years) would find it hard to argue that the extra money we received, even compared to very close geographical neighbours, didn’t help.

However a ‘flat’ formula, even with some regional weighting, will be hard to achieve in a time of austerity. Such massive change is only really politically viable when everyone’s funding is going up enough for the transition not to be noticed. So that will be the first dilemma for the new incumbent of Sanctuary Buildings.

Then there are the funding cuts. National Insurance payments are going up, pension contributions are going up, academy central services grants are going down and local authority funding is being slashed. Secondary schools with sixth forms will be particularly hard hit as post-16 cuts make hitherto feasible teacher pupil ratios and curricula look unrealistic.

Even with promises from all the main parties to ‘protect’ funding in various ways, when you add in the need for new school places most objective analysis suggests schools will face cuts of around 9.5% in the next five years. There will also be very little capital funding available for either condition or suitability of school buildings.

It doesn’t matter who wins the election, the inevitable consequence of this will be a drive towards further collaboration, partnership working and school to school support as schools try to garner economies of scale in the face of weakened local authority capacity.

Can’t get the staff…

The second big issue is teacher supply. For all the talk about diversity, choice and competition over the last 20 years, the evidence now seem to point firmly away from more structural reform and towards the importance of teacher quality if we want to continue raising standards and succeed in that elusive aim of narrowing gaps.

Yet applications to teacher training have dropped by 16 % since 2010 and a further 900,000 pupils will come into the school system in the next decade. The debate about how to create more school places may be quickly eclipsed by the need to find enough people to work in those schools, to progress up the career ladder and to become the senior leaders and heads of the future.

The current workload review and the promise of a College of Teaching may help regenerate the teaching profession at the margins but I suspect the real issue that must be grasped now is one of morale, status and trust.

Teaching may seem like a less attractive prospect as the economy improves (the post crash period was one of the high points in recent recruitment) but as most professionals know job satisfaction isn’t just about the money. It is about respect, personal fulfillment and a sense of achievement.

Negative rhetoric about teachers and school leaders, the sense that they aren’t really trusted to do the job well without the heavy hand of government accountability bearing down on them is omnipresent, corrosive and has an inevitable impact on what goes on in the classroom.

I am not suggesting zero accountability or unlimited freedom. My own children’s primary school was one of the first to be ‘named and shamed’ in the early days of Ofsted. That experience, and bumping along the bottom of the league tables for several years, was a powerful incentive to improve.

But the new frontier for schools and politicians will be how to develop effective oversight while allowing more positive school cultures to evolve. Trust and respect rather than fear of failure must be the watchwords going forward, whoever is in power.