Four Wishes and a Star

The eve of a new year is usually a time for optimism. The promise of a fresh start, a blank slate to be filled by new resolutions. There’s something about the turn of a year that makes us feel more positive about the future.

Sad to say, in the world of education, the start of 2023 doesn’t particularly feel like that. Almost all of the problems that saw out the old year will still be round when the new term begins. A year ago, the prospect of the end of Covid disruption was an enticing one. Vaccines were proving successful and despite the Omicron wave, it appeared that schools were likely to stay open and largely remain safe. There was a new Education White Paper on the way which promised some clarity about future policy and a national focus on education.

Fast forward twelve months and the optimism has largely evaporated. I’ve rarely seen staff in school who have been so desperate to reach the end of term, exhausted by continual challenges. Some of this is as a result of the cumulative effect of three years during which the demands on schools have never been higher, and the work we do has never been so vital and wide-ranging. Much of it, however, is because of genuine issues that are facing the system and which need addressing urgently.

When evaluating the current situation, in keeping with sound educational practice that teachers everywhere would recognise, I’d ideally like to be positive, pick out a few things that are going well, and identify something that needs improving – a technique you may know as ‘3 stars and a wish’. However, I’m really not sure that would give an accurate picture of the educational landscape, and some of the challenges facing us are too pressing to be skated over. So, at the risk of appearing over-negative, and despite the fact that there are always positives to be found when we work in schools, I think a more realistic picture would be represented by ‘4 wishes and a Star’. Here’s my evaluation of the key issues facing education a we go into 2023:

Wish#1 – Recruitment: It’s a truism to say that the quality of our education system is entirely dependent on the staff who deliver it. Of course, they need to be well-trained, motivated and highly-skilled, but more importantly, they need to exist. Looking at the impending recruitment crisis is like spotting a tsunami far out to sea – it may not be causing issues for everyone at the moment, but we can see it coming and unless we act quickly, it will be upon us, too late to do anything about it.

According to the government’s own figures, in 2022, the number of new entrants to initial teacher training fell to 93% of the target needed to maintain teacher numbers in primary and 59% in secondary. 62% of the target was achieved for EBacc subjects (compared to 84% in 2021/22). All of these figures represent precipitous drops compared to previous years. The total number recruited was 71% of the target, down from 97% in the previous year. In addition, the number of teachers leaving the profession last year, especially in the early years of their career, leapt significantly.

There are already areas of the country where schools find it incredibly difficult to recruit high-quality specialist staff, whether that’s teachers of A level physics, early years specialists or any point in between. It’s particularly noticeable at Head Teacher level, where many posts are advertised and re-advertised several times over.

Put simply, if we do not attract more good quality graduates into teaching, and then retain them when they’re here, then the system will buckle in a few short years, and resolving the problem will take a generation.

It’s not just teachers. Attracting good-quality support staff can be almost impossible, given that the skills that we need are often far better rewarded in the private sector. Business managers, TAs, site staff, Midday Supervisors – schools all over the country have found it almost impossible to recruit well.

There isn’t one simple reason for this, of course – it’s a combination of pay, working conditions, status and the impact of performativity cultures, but if we have a strategy, it’s not working.

Wish#2 – SEND: The truest indicator of the success of our system is the way that it treats our most vulnerable children. On that measure, we’re failing. Increasing numbers of pupils with significant needs in mainstream schools, special schools full to overflowing, independent non-maintained provision of variable quality and spiralling cost – all point to a system that is breaking under the strain.

We have somehow managed to create a national approach to SEND that combines the worst of every possible world – a system that costs eye-watering amounts of money, serves pupils badly, and creates division between school and home. What’s more, the effectiveness of the system varies hugely depending on the locality – a situation that is both inefficient and unfair.

As well as the internal implications for the SEND sector, the crisis is bleeding into the wider funding crisis. In November, Schools Week reported that rising demand for SEND has left councils with a £1.9 billion deficit on everyday school funding, with some councils warning that without immediate aid, they would consider declaring effective bankruptcy.

Despite previous promises, there is still no clear timetable for the implementation of SEND reforms promised in the Green Paper, and as we get closer to an election, the chances increase that this will be shelved yet again. In the meantime vulnerable pupils lose out, parents are despairing of finding appropriate provision, and schools are buckling under the strain.

Wish#3 – Structural reform: One of the most eye-catching elements of the White Paper was the intention to move to a Trust led system by 2030. Whatever your views on this as a model, it at least represented an attempt at coherence. However, since the initial momentum generated by the announcement, little has actually changed and the shelving of the Schools Bill leaves us precisely where we have been for the past few years.

That is to say, we have a system completely lacking in coherence – a combination of maintained schools, small local trusts, national MATs, single academies, and a few variations on the above. All operate under slightly different conditions, with different rules, funding arrangements and accountability frameworks. The occasional school will be forced down the MAT route following a poor Ofsted, or a school leader may choose to join a trusted local colleague in a Trust, but at the current rate of progress, this patchwork system will exist for decades.

It makes effective policy decisions extraordinarily difficult, because the impact of a policy will often depend upon the status of an individual school, and it also hard-wires unfairness into the system. If the vision is still of a Trust-led system, then the Government needs to spend more time and energy in engaging with schools to make the case, and needs to join the debate.

Wish#4 – Funding: It’s important to recognise that the additional funding announced in the Autumn statement was extremely welcome and has certainly bought us some time. My initial scepticism has been misplaced – this is new money and has arrived in the nick of time. However, it is most definitely not ‘problem solved’. There is a well-founded fear that unless we take a longer term view, it has postponed the crisis rather than solving it.

Sensible and well run schools don’t plan a few months ahead, and hope for a benevolent Chancellor to rescue them when times are tough. We use all the information we have to take a view over the medium and long term, and then make decisions accordingly. For years, we have been asking for a long term view on budgets. There are a few key factors that we need to know to avoid the sort of angst that has been in evidence over the last few months – overall core funding over the coming years, broad policy on pay settlements, support (or otherwise) for extraordinary factors such as stratospheric rises in energy costs, and the policy on funding large scale capital projects.

Above all, we need a continuing commitment across the political divide to fund our education system properly, giving it the value it deserves.

And a star….

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the issues we’re facing at the moment. However, whenever the broad educational landscape appears to be lacking in hope, the best way to restore optimism is to look at what is happening in classrooms across our schools.

It’s my greatest privilege that I get to visit many classrooms in many schools and see teachers and support staff across all phases and sectors of education. Given the unimaginable disruption since the start of 2020, it is remarkable to see how successfully our schools have picked up the reins again, and children and young people are once again learning key skills, acquiring vital knowledge and making progress in their learning.

The core strength of our education system lies here – in the skill and dedication of staff, the positivity and warmth of our schools, and the strength and unity of our communities.

The message for those in power is simple – take problems seriously, engage with the stakeholders, particularly school and Trust leaders, and develop a coherent plan. We’ll do the rest.

Now, that would lead to a Happy New Year.

Author: Dr Heery

I'm the Chief Executive Officer of the White Hills Park Trust, a current Ofsted Lead Inspector, former Head of both primary and secondary schools, and a former LA School Improvement Adviser, as well as being a practising teacher. I am interested in schools and school systems built on generous collaboration, collective responsibility and strong values. My blog is a place where I share my thoughts and ideas on the world of education and school leadership, with the aim of provoking debate and discussion. Click the logo above to read more.

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