School cuts are more damaging than potholes

By Geoff Barton
General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders
Let’s talk about potholes. Because they are everywhere. If you haven’t personally rattled across a few of them on your latest car ride to anywhere, you can hardly miss (unlike the potholes) all the news on this topic in the press.
Yes, newspapers love stories about potholes – or at least the online clicks they generate.
Last week, the Asphalt Industry Alliance published a report saying that our roads are at “breaking point” due to potholes, the BBC reported. The government countered by saying that it has pledged to provide £8.3 billion of extra funding over 11 years for road improvements. I’ve no idea whether that is good or bad. It’s just a big figure divided up over lots of years.
I don’t think this interest in potholes is just about the damage they do to our cars, or the jolting discomfort to our spines. Potholes also serve as a very visible symbol of decay. They convey the sense that the country has gone to the dogs, that the economy is in decline, that the government has lost control.
If I were a minister in this ailing government, I’d be doing everything I could to make sure that people aren’t still crunching over potholes on their way to the polling stations later this year.
But there are other signs of decay that are less visible but which are – with respect to long-suffering motorists – much more important than potholes. And one of these is education where recruitment and retention is at crisis point with no up-to-date strategy to address it, the school estate is literally falling apart, the SEND system is financially unsustainable, and schools are dealing with sky-high absence, behaviour challenges, poor mental health, and entrenched poverty and disadvantage.
This is less visible than potholes because the fractures in the education system are not something that people see when they drive to the local supermarket. The public is not physically confronted with the difficulty in appointing a maths teacher, or fixing a leaking ceiling, or not having enough money to give a child the SEND support they need.
And the pressures in education are also less visible because it is hardwired into leaders and teachers to protect children and young people from the impact of these problems – to paper over the cracks, to somehow manage despite all these challenges. It is therefore not uncommon for headteachers – and other members of senior leadership teams – to be working deep into every evening, and over weekends and holidays, to keep the plates spinning, in a way that is utterly draining, and ultimately unsustainable.
The government’s response is strikingly similar to what it says about potholes. It quotes seemingly large spending figures in a way which is meaningless.
In fact, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a leading think-tank, recently called out the government on the way it regularly makes the claim that school funding is at a record high, describing this as “unhelpful to public debate.” The IFS says: “Prior to 2010, school funding per pupil was at a record high almost every year. The fact that this has not been the case since 2010 just reflects the fact that we have seen historically large cuts to school spending per pupil.”
And this is just 5-16 funding – the situation in post-16 education is much worse.
There is no plan to fix this damage. Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has said that public spending will increase only by 1% higher than inflation over the next parliament.
With rising costs in many areas – such as health – this will mean that other public services will be squeezed. Schools are, in fact, one sector that is relatively protected to the extent that they will be spared the full force of a new wave of austerity. But there is no prospect of things improving in these circumstances, and other areas such as FE, and local authority services that have already taken such a hammering, are vulnerable.
And it is money – or lack of money – that is at the root of so many problems. Teacher shortages are linked to pay erosion, workload is high because of staffing constraints, SEND is under enormous pressure because demand outstrips funding, and so on.
The story of the past 14 years has been one of governmental neglect. As a trade union, working alongside colleagues in other unions and other organisations, we’ve achieved some big victories, securing billions of pounds for education, during that time. But it has always felt as though we are having to drag the government to a more reasonable position.
For what it is worth, I don’t think that Mr Hunt’s spending plans will stand. Whoever is Chancellor after the forthcoming General Election will have to revisit them. No government can afford politically to preside over a further collapse in public services.
What is for sure is that we cannot continue as a nation along the current trajectory. The creeping erosion of vital public services – of the education service upon which millions of children and families rely – is far more damaging than potholes.
In a nation where economic growth is proving so hard to secure, there is surely a need for a political and economic plan which is bold and transformative. And there is no better place to start than investment in education, laying the foundations for the skills and knowledge the country needs, providing a means of closing gaps between rich and poor, north and south, and ensuring that the UK is able to compete on a global stage.
As I approach the end of my tenure as General Secretary, and I hand over in a couple of weeks to my successor Pepe Di’Iasio, this is my greatest wish for the profession, for education and for the country. You – and the children and young people in your schools and colleges – deserve political leaders of substance and ambition. Education needs to matter more to the government than it has appeared to do during my tenure. Here’s hoping.
And here’s hoping too that they also fix those wretched potholes.
Posted: 26/03/2024 10:43:10