Funding and fairness key to schools debate
Tuesday, October 30, 2018
The speech by shadow education secretary Angela Rayner to the Labour party conference was strong on principle - whatever your view of academies, she has come out strongly in support of a particular vision of education.
Let's call it the co-operative model. She has, though, the luxury of being in opposition, and could be as radical and free-spending as the party faithful would like. I haven't costed her proposals, but improving teacher pay, reversing the cuts to budgets, a new pre-school entitlement, and changes to governance and management would not be cheap.
At the Conservative party conference, Secretary of State Damian Hinds had a much harder job, as he has to manage within the budget allocated by the Treasury. He is also saddled with the structural reforms of the Gove era, and he isn't going to go back on those. Perhaps it's not surprising that he has been reprimanded by the UK's statistics watchdog for giving too rosy a view of funding and school achievements - it must be tempting to present the best possible interpretation of data, however questionable the analysis.
The reality is that whoever is in charge over the next few years will have to start from a position of falling budgets - by eight per cent per school pupil over the past eight years, and 20 per cent for post-16 education. The Prime Minister announced "the end of austerity", but that should be taken as a rhetorical flourish. It has taken eight years for austerity to feed through, and there are more cuts already in the pipeline. Even if the Budget is unexpectedly generous, it will take many years for schools and the wider education service to recover. Austerity is not over yet.
Which brings me back to the co-operative model espoused by Rayner. Even without proper funding, the notion of a public service working to the common good appeals. It's easy to see why, when cash is really tight and accountability measures bite, individual schools and head teachers behave in their own interests rather than the interests of all local children. Do you provide that disturbed 16-year-old with extra support to keep them in school until their GCSEs, and if you do, what else will you cut? That's the sort of dilemma which leads to off-rolling and other misbehaviour on exclusions and admissions. The children who lose out are, inevitably, those who need education the most - the poorest, with special needs or behavioural difficulties. The long-term impact for society and individuals will be very serious.
Ofsted is now looking at off-rolling in secondary schools, and Damian Hinds has used the phrase in a speech. We might see off-rolling diminish. I fear, though, that the incentives to hit accountability targets within ever-tighter budgets will simply mean that schools will adopt different tactics to achieve the same ends. Whether it is Angela Rayner or Damian Hinds in charge, what we need are schools that truly serve all pupils, even if they are underfunded.
John Freeman is a children's services consultant and former DCS