It’s clear there are seriously choppy waters ahead for schools
Is it true, as so often stated, that the combination of challenges facing secondary schools and their students has never been greater? Paul Whiteman, general secretary of NAHT, the largest union for school leaders in the UK, certainly believes so.
“Many school leaders are concerned about maintaining high standards in the face of simultaneous upheaval on so many fronts,” he points out. “It’s a perfect storm. The government is loading more uncertainty onto the secondary system than ever before. There is a real risk it will break.”
According to school leaders, the combination of challenges they face begins with recruitment and retention, is driven by the real terms cuts to budgets, and includes the wholesale changes to the subjects that secondary school students can study.
Throw in concerns about how Brexit will impact on the 5,000 EU nationals who work as teachers, and it is not difficult to see how secondary schools are suddenly faced with an overwhelming number of conflicting – and interconnecting – priorities.
Robert Campbell, executive principal of Impington Village College in Cambridge says that his school is one of many which is “increasingly finding it harder recruit, particularly in maths, science and languages where there is an acknowledged shortage of graduates. We all want the best teaching for our students, but recruitment is the toughest it has been since I became a head.”
“Year after year, the government has missed its own targets for teacher recruitment,” confirms Paul Whiteman. “30 per cent of new teachers leave the profession after five years. NAHT’s own research shows school leaders have struggled or failed to recruit in eight out of ten cases this year. Recruitment has never been more challenging.”
To guarantee enough high-quality teachers, schools are now paying a premium either to cover the high cost of living in desirable areas or to attract preferred candidates to more challenging areas. This is a cost that many schools just can’t sustain; in order to balance their budgets, 66% of school leaders are already reducing the hours of teaching assistants, and 31% have said they are losing staff hours.
Added to the concerns around budgets and recruitment is the expectation that at GCSE level, 90% of pupils must study the subjects specified in the EBacc. In a recent survey of NAHT’s secondary school members, 79% said that the EBacc policy has already had a negative impact on the breadth of the curriculum in their school.
“The EBacc subjects do not have a monopoly on rigour and value,” argues Mr Whiteman. “There are others which also provide a suitable grounding for life and work and which should be valued in the school curriculum. The new Progress8 measure was a sensible way of balancing academic and non-academic subjects; we do not need yet another change.”
This summer also saw the first group of pupils whose GCSE scores have started to be reported as numbers rather than letters. There is still widespread confusion about how the new 9-1 grades compare to the old system. This year’s candidates got a mixture of both – numbers for GCSEs in English and maths, letters for the other subjects; and the lack of clear information is simply whipping up the predicted storm still further.
Several leading bodies have pointed out the realities around school funding. The National Audit Office has claimed that schools will need to find £3bn in savings by 2019/20, which the government does not dispute. However, the standard line that is often given is that “education spending has never been higher.” The Public Accounts Committee recently published a report that was highly critical of the government’s stance, saying it “does not seem to understand the pressures that schools are already under.”
However, the dire financial straits that schools are finding themselves in are becoming increasingly clear to school staff, parents and even children. In March, seven year old Libby James, a pupil at Buntingsdale Primary School in Shropshire wrote to her local newspaper to say: “Some of my friends have brains that work a bit different to mine so they need extra help at school. I am worried that they will not be able to learn at school because they will not have the TA or teacher they need.”
This is certainly reflected in NAHT’s own research, which shows that 83% of school leaders believe catering for pupils with additional learning needs is adding to financial pressure.
“The need to deliver a world class education system has never been greater,” says Graham Colclough, school business manager at Burnwood Community School in Staffordshire. “Yet school budgets are at breaking point. In my own school we are looking at a reduction of over £140,000. Even the schools that look OK at the moment, if you look at their five year forecasts, it is looking very difficult ahead.”
Anne Lyons, head teacher at St John Fisher Catholic Primary in Pinner and NAHT President-elect spells out the stark reality: “Real terms government cuts will reduce the breadth of opportunities I can offer my children. Arts, music and sports are essential parts of school life. Schools in my local authority face savings of more than £18m by 2019. Without sufficient funding, music, the most wonderful experience I offer our children, will have to go. The Treasury’s short sighted attitude to national finances is unfair on the children we serve and is already putting school standards in jeopardy.”
“All schools are operating under unacceptable levels of financial pressure,” concludes Mr Whiteman. “NAHT’s annual Breaking Point survey showed that 72 per cent of school budgets will be untenable in two years’ time; 18 per cent of school leaders say they are already in deficit. This is a result of the government’s choice to freeze spending and keep it at 2010 levels for each pupil. Rising costs and additional expenses like increases in National Insurance and pension contributions and the Apprenticeship levy mean that the 2010 cash isn’t going as far as it used to. You can’t expect it to. But the government is flatly refusing to admit the reality. And until it does, all schools are at risk.”