There are so many things to get upset about these days that for the majority of us education and the funding thereof just has to get in line. Indeed, unless you’re directly affected by the trends occurring in education, either from a professional point of view or as a concerned parent, it’s easy to mentally park education into a ‘it’s slightly worrying but not terribly serious in the grander scheme of things’ partition of your brain. Politicians keep claiming that they are protecting school funding, and there’s a lot of talk about what they’re doing to make our education system ‘world class’ so if you don’t look any deeper it’s easy to think that everything’s just bumbling along pretty well just as it always has, thank you.
But this isn’t true. There are some really rather major crises in education brewing, not least the recruitment and retention of teachers, inadequate numbers of school places, and massively insufficient investment. The issue of funding is one that has a cascade effect on all of the others and is literally blighting the lives of school leaders all over the country. While ‘doing more with less’ is a theme that we see repeated across every sector, in education the effects of this are more creeping and invisible to outsiders. It’s hard to quantify what is being lost through lack of investment, with the domino effect often making it difficult to clearly link cause and effect. And because, individually, these losses can seem small and somewhat parochial in a world where dead children wash up on our beaches, they’re unlikely to capture our hearts and our attention enough for the government to want to do something about them.
However, here are just some of the areas in which funding is causing huge problems:
Over the past few years politicians, via the media, have convinced us that if children aren’t achieving well enough then it is the fault, absolutely, of the teachers and/or leadership of that school, beautifully deflecting attention away from budget cuts as a potential contributing factor. We seem willing to forget, however, that teachers are only human and suffer the same limitations as the rest of us.
With more money available we could have more teaching assistants in each classroom for teachers to delegate to. They might even be able to bring in additional specialist support for those in their class with special learning needs, enabling them to spread their time more evenly. Schools could invest more in teaching and intervention programmes, reducing the burden on teachers to create their own plans and materials all of the time. Where teachers do need support with an area of their teaching practice, professional development could be more easily brought in and paid for. They could, perhaps, be given more than a measly <1% pay rise in recognition of how incredibly hard they work.
There might be some recognition of the fact that the answer to every problem can’t be that they simply need to work harder, better, smarter. They might feel that there is a shared responsibility for getting little Johnny up to age-related expectations. They might be able to get better results for all of their children because they actually have tools at their disposal. And they might not end up crying in the staffroom through sheer exhaustion, frustration and fear.
I’ve been privileged to study the Development Plan for my children’s school recently as part of my parent governor role. I think it’s an OK plan. They’ve identified the right areas for improvement at least, and I have seen some of the actions from it taking place over the past term in concrete ways. However, I can’t help but feel that it doesn’t go far enough, for the simple reason that they haven’t got enough money.
This is a school that doesn’t have enough reading books to send home with Reception children, let alone to invest in big published maths and literacy programmes, additional staff or new computing equipment. New approaches that they are bringing in for writing and spelling feel a little bit pick and mix and well, marginal. Like someone trying to furnish a new house using only the Charity Shops and Freecycle, they’re trying to find the very best they can without actually spending any real money.
A sofa is a sofa, and a good bit of writing pedagogy is a good bit of writing pedagogy. Except of course a sofa can be soft, beautiful and appealing, or lumpy and ugly. And pedagogy can be research-based and potentially effective but nevertheless lacking in the ‘flesh’ to make it easily applicable and child-friendly. Again, it’s up to the teachers to do all the hard work in adopting the new approach and making it work.
My background is in educational publishing, so perhaps that makes me forever a naïve patsy who believes her own hype about the programmes she marketed. I know many schools see publishers as the enemy – as cynical money-makers profiting from schools’ misery every time there’s a curriculum change. But I have seen the blood, sweat and tears that go into making these programmes and the ‘bottom line’ is not what gets talked about most in meetings (though it is a bit, obviously), it’s whether the whole thing will actually improve outcomes for pupils.
These programmes pull together the very best expertise and evidence and wrap them into high-quality resources that teachers can draw on for their every need. I’m not saying that teachers don’t have the intellect to create effective resources by themselves, but I’m saying how can they in terms of time and work-life balance and why would they, when someone (several people in fact including the country’s leading experts) has already done the thinking and research into best practice for them?
I believe that the right programmes, implemented properly by great teachers, are the key to school improvement. They offer carefully thought out progression, consistency of approach, and child-motivating resources. Free teachers up from having to create or find their own resources and you give them more time to plan the delivery of them and more time to evaluate the results of them.
But of course, they cost money.
Health and Safety
You wouldn’t imagine that this is something that schools would ever let suffer. It’s certainly something that the government is quite clear should not ever be neglected for any reason. But let’s be realistic. Building and maintenance work costs vast amounts of money. More even than big published teaching schemes.
So what do you do when you need the roof fixing, or a new fire alarm system and the money just isn’t there? You make do and mend as much as possible, get in line for help from the Local Authority and keep your fingers firmly crossed that no disaster is imminent. Let’s pray that this isn’t the news story that suddenly pushes funding cuts for education into the limelight.
The ‘not quite bad enough’ kids
This is my personal bug-bear because I have one of these kids. Now in Year 3 I have come to suspect he has some kind of learning difficulty. I don’t know this for a fact though because I’m struggling to get the school to commit the time of their SEN specialist (who is in school one solitary day a week) to him. They know he has some degree of problem; his results confirm it. Almost from day 1 they have told me he’s dreamy, in a world of his own, unable to focus. But he’s not naughty. In fact he’s quiet, polite and obliging. He doesn’t cause them any ‘pain’ (except perhaps for the effect he may have on the school results when he gets to Year 6).
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think the school doesn’t care. I think they’re juggling priorities. There are children with worse learning difficulties and far worse behavioural issues. So in a world of inadequate resources he’s just not quite bad enough to get the attention I feel he deserves.
Educational Psychologists cost money. Diagnostic testing costs money. TAs cost money. Programmes aimed at improving concentration cost money. Professional Development to help teachers identify and deal with conditions like dyslexia or ADHD cost money. Even time costs money.
Yes, Pupil Premium gives schools extra funding to help disadvantaged children with these difficulties (and to help more-able disadvantaged children too) but what about struggling children who aren’t classed as disadvantaged? While I heartily approve of the intention of Pupil Premium and appreciate that it’s an attempt to help those children who are most vulnerable, it feels to me as though as though ring-fencing it so that non-FSM children aren’t seen to be benefitting from it is a little punitive to other struggling children. Why not rather make it so that schools are given sufficient budget to help ALL children regardless of their background or ability?
I know this is not a problem that’s going to go away. The country just doesn’t have enough money to solve all the problems in all the sectors. But let’s make sure this doesn’t get any worse.