First of all, congratulations on your election, and on becoming our new Prime Minister. It’s a great achievement, of which you should be very proud. It’s also good news that we have a Prime Minister who has been educated at a state school, and does not come from a background of immense privilege – I have to say it never felt as if your predecessor had any understanding of the lives of real people, and hopefully you will be very different.
I know you will have a busy few weeks as you settle in to your new job. As was discussed many times during your leadership campaign, we are facing many challenges as a nation – cost of living, fuel poverty, war in Ukraine, climate change, and we are faced with the transition to a new monarch. It’s an unenviable in-tray, and you will certainly have your hands full. I see that delivery is the theme of your tenure, and I know you are anxious to get on with things.
I did find it surprising that during your campaign, there was so little mention of education. Apart from some passing mentions of grammar schools, I am very much in the dark about your views on the key issues and concerns facing schools. The scale of the disruption to schooling during the pandemic has been very well documented, and the fact that this has disproportionately affected the most vulnerable in society was only confirmed by this summer’s results. As Nadhim Zahawi said, during his short time as Secretary of State for Education: ‘Young people have put up with an awful lot over the past two years. By doing everything that has been asked of them, they will have sacrificed many of the things all of us here took for granted when we were growing up…We all owe it to this generation to give them the world-class education they deserve’.
I sincerely hope that you share this view. So, speaking as someone who is charged with dealing with these problems on a daily basis, I would like to give you and Mr Malthouse a ‘heads-up’ on the most pressing problems that are facing us.
Firstly, make no mistake – there is a funding crisis out there that schools are finding devastating. Help with fuel bills will make a difference, assuming it continues for a reasonable length of time, but unfunded and unanticipated increases in wage costs have hit us hard, however much they are needed and deserved by our dedicated staff. Schools and Trusts tried to be responsible and factored in increased costs at the recommended level, but given the scale of the increase, the proportion of our expenditure that we have to commit to wages, and the lateness of the announcement, it is impossible for this not to impact significantly. This will lead to cutbacks and impact provision directly. My greatest fear is that we will have to prioritise the core business of class teaching and therefore the individual and small group help and support will suffer. This will mean that our most vulnerable children and those most affected by covid disruption will suffer most. I can’t believe that you want this to happen. An announcement that government will fund the pay rises that schools were not asked to budget for would be very welcome, and help avert a significant diversion of resources for all, and catastrophe for some.
Secondly, whilst I understand and fully accept the need for schools to be held to account for the way they perform their vital task, this only works if the information used is fair and accurate. My observation is that two years without published external data have not led to complacency or a lack of effort, it has allowed us to focus on the most important things for our pupils. We have navigated a successful return to exams and external assessments and schools have prepared their pupils in the best way possible. However, the fact that the profound impact of the pandemic was so unevenly and arbitrarily distributed means that using these results to publicly evaluate school performance is deeply flawed, and will lead to unfair and counter-productive outcomes. Until you have absolute confidence that this data is accurate and meaningful, naming and shaming should be put on hold.
Thirdly, the White Paper and subsequent Schools Bill signalled a direction of travel in terms of the future structure of education, but the uncertainty that has surrounded the change in government has left many schools unsure of the best way to plan. We need a clear signal around the plan for the future of education system. If all schools are to be part of Multi Academy Trusts, how will that be done at a reasonable scale and pace? How will you convince reluctant schools that they will not risk diluting their ethos and values by joining a larger partnership? There are many great trusts out there who are keen to grow (not least our own) but we have no desire to bring schools into our partnership who don’t want to be there. Hearts and minds have to be won if this is the way forward.
Fourthly, please don’t be distracted by phony culture wars. In my experience, teachers and school leaders take a pragmatic, responsible and ambitious approach to the curriculum. We want our pupils to have a balanced and rounded view of the world, to have a secure grasp of important core skills as well as the opportunity to develop their own particular talents, gifts and creative skills. We don’t use the curriculum to pursue ideology or promote particular lifestyles. In my experience, governments are advised to tread carefully and work with the profession when it comes to curriculum development.
Finally, please don’t be afraid to celebrate the achievements of pupils, teachers and schools. It is my privilege to see wonderful staff inspiring children every day of my working life. During my 34 years in the profession, I have seen remarkable improvement in the quality of all aspects of school provision – pedagogy, curriculum thinking, behaviour management, safeguarding, pastoral care. It has sometimes seemed that politicians view our education service not as a jewel to be celebrated, but as a problem to be fixed. When everyone is working as hard as they can, we all want to feel appreciated. When the pressures of your very difficult job weigh heavily upon you, then my advice is to arrange to visit a school – close contact with children, young people and the wonderful staff who support them will revive your spirit and remind you why you wanted to be in a position of influence. Just let me know and I’ll put the kettle on