ASCL’s Regional Information Conferences provide a great opportunity to tune in to what headteachers and others are feeling. I am hearing views about curriculum changes ahead, a chronic shortage of teachers and how we are being held to account.
However, underpinning all this, the strongest message is about funding. One particularly articulate member recently told me he felt there are a number of priorities at the moment. One is funding. Another is funding. And then there is funding. Oh, and did I know that what matters right now is funding?
These problems are not new. Schools are working within a broadly flat cash allocation which is eroded significantly by additional employers’ contributions.
There is a very uneven distribution of funds. Post-16 funding is yet another story; the FE college sector is woefully underfunded compared to schools, with school sixth forms also managing large cuts.
What will be the impact if nothing changes? It will potentially be extremely serious and irrevocable. If further efficiencies outside of staffing costs cannot be found, and every penny of additional income is being explored already, there is only really one place to go.
The impact of this is both obvious and extremely worrying. Children will have less personal attention with further increases in class size. There will be the morale-sapping effect of schools continuing to make difficult staffing decisions. Teachers will have less time to mark and plan for learning and the best will have less time for inspiring others. Curriculum breadth and opportunity will reduce. It will be enormously challenging to continue to raise standards and enrich the future of young people.
Of course, many reading this may challenge the future tense. They will say all this is happening right now and has been for some while.
A deep moral imperative
Where may some of the answers lie? We all know we live in austere times and other services hardly have it easy either. A cry for sustainable funding levels and more equity in the system.
The Reverend Jesse Jackson has a useful take on this. He says a nation must be committed to “lift from the bottom in order to provide equal high quality education for all children everywhere”.
The feeling is of a deep moral imperative. The sometimes conflicting international research about links between investment in education and economic prosperity does not seem to be the starting place. The starting place is a belief in young people and a genuine recognition that looking after them properly looks after us all in the long term.
There is a genuine sense amongst some of a brick wall in front of us. This leads to some very difficult questions. When we have already explored every possibility what more can we actually do? Randy Pausch (American professor of computer science) said “Brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls aren't there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to show us how badly we want things”. Many of our members are seeing the brick wall; it seems to be solid and impenetrable. It should never have been built for the reason Randy describes and it needs dismantling.
The Conservative manifesto 2015 flies under the banner of “Strong Leadership… a brighter more secure future”. It goes on to say “Every school needs… proper funding”. ASCL will continue to press urgently for a National Fair Funding Formula (NFFF) in order to help us plan for a fairer future in schools. Such a formula will need to recognise that not all children cost the same to educate, nor are costs necessarily the same regionally.
There will also be the need for phasing in the formula since overnight implementation of NFFF could cause real difficulties for some. Beyond this we should consistently make the point that current funding levels are genuinely insufficient.
Sometimes it is hard to speak loudly. All who have a stake in our schools need confidence that they are being well run and whatever money there is gets spent wisely. However, parents, governors and young people will readily support our view if it is clearly explained. They can stand by us and join us in making these views heard.
So, optimistic leadership needs a foothold in the reality of what lies ahead. We may do our best to continue to smile. For sure, however constrained we are, we will strive to do our utmost for the young people we are looking after today.
They may never thank us for pressing for a better deal for them, but no matter, we absolutely must.