Gimme Some Truth

Secretary of State,

Happy New Year to you and I hope you are settling into your new office.

I write this more in hope than expectation. Hope that you will both read what I have to say and that you will recognise the truth it contains. You will receive much advice in the coming weeks from many different sources. Hopefully this small piece of truth can help inform your reaction to that advice.

There are many issues to consider in the schools sector that remain problematic: structures, accountability, teacher retention and recruitment are probably the key three. However, the one thing that links these together is money.

Now you will receive advice that more money has been put into the system this year, that there is a fair funding formula on the way and that the line to take is that “…record sums of money have gone into the school system this year…”.

Now all these things are true. But they’re not the whole truth. Funding has a context. In schools it’s this:

  • There has been a 7.9% increase in students in state maintained schools since 2010.
  • There has been an increase in NI payments for all employees in the last couple of years.
  • Similarly there has been an increase in pension costs in the same period.
  • Additionally for larger school employers there has been the imposition of the Apprentice Levy.
  • Since 2010 the RPI has increased by over 26%.

For more details on this see here.

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Schools, pupils and their characteristics: January 2017

Now, your officials will be keen to get you to talk in overall figures. I have a theory about this. I believe it is done because those figures in billions of pounds sound impressive to the person on the Clapham omnibus. But they are also, by the very nature of their size (and I speak as a former Maths teacher), difficult to comprehend for many. Effectively the correct information is provided but the intention is to mislead.

So I’m going to make it easier. I’m only going to look a single school. It’s the school where I’m a governor. And so I use only published figures I’m going to look at the period from 2012/13 to this year just gone, 2016/17 (the RPI increase over this period was 12.9%).

This is a very effective school, rated outstanding by Ofsted, consistently very oversubscribed. Indeed it has recently been named as one of Tatlers top-20 state secondary schools (yes, I know, you take your praise wherever you can get it these days). It is an efficient school – the timetable slack (the number of periods a teacher is available and not used) is virtually zero.

So let me explain the problem (and I have to tell you that many, many schools are in a worse position than this one). The pupil related income for the school has increased by a little under 8% in the period. Against this, the staffing costs have increased by over 15%. This means that after staffing costs we have around 12% less this year than we did in 2012/13. This is in cash terms. If we include the RPI in this calculation it means we have nearly 22% less to pay for all the other things the school has to spend money on – heating, lighting, paper, printing, maintenance, cleaning, IT and so on. To put it in simple terms, we have £4 where we used to have £5. In anybodies language this is a cut in funding. So inevitably one or more of those areas discussed above has to suffer.

This is where the problems get linked. One example. Relatively, teachers pay has stagnated. This does not help in attracting new recruits to the profession. Not only have they seen the starting pay eroded, they see no way that it will increase significantly in the coming years. Thus recruitment suffers as we have seen with a one third drop this past year. The cost pressures I’ve identified above make working in a school less attractive. As time gets squeezed, contact time is increased, increasing workload. This does not help in keeping teachers.

Now for the surprising bit. This is not a letter begging you for more money. Why? Well. I know it is not in your gift. You can make a case for it, you can lobby for it, you can even throw your toys out the pram and resign if you don’t get more. But I understand that it is not your decision.

So what do I want? It’s very simple. I want you to tell the truth.

Every time that a minister says words to the effect of “…record sums of money have gone into the school system this year…” the intention is to undermine every headteacher who points out that their funding is decreasing. It may well be true that “…record sums of money have gone into the school system this year…”, however, I know, those headteachers know, and, most importantly, you know that in the context of an individual school it is a lie. And every time it is told it undermines confidence not only in the person saying it but in the system they are supposed to be protecting. This is not a way that will inspire the trust you will need if you are to implement any effective policies in the sector.

You are a new broom. You have a chance to change this narrative. Respect school leaders. Tell them the truth. They’re grown ups, they understand.

And a small piece of advice. Get to know some schools really well. Not the usual suspects that your team will put in front of you as exemplars, but those that are struggling. Look at their accounts, so when you are confronted with the big decisions about funding you can understand what they will mean at the school level.

And one last thing. I wish you good luck. Every teacher in every school wants you to do well. Because if you do the children they work so hard to serve will be better off.

Yours faithfully,