I have been a headteacher of three different primary schools since 2002 and the current funding settlement is by far the worst I have come across in all that time. For the first time in my school career the issue at hand can be put down simply to there not being enough money provided to operate a school efficiently and successfully, never mind kindly. There are no areas of local authority or central government incompetence to be blamed, not can we point to local mistakes in allocation, imbalance in school budgets or simply mismanagement at a school level. I have worked for the past five years to nurture an investment budget, one that does credit to the desire of senior leaders to see the school grow and develop, to be in excellent repair and to be safe; to provide for the future leadership of our school and other schools; to be innovative in the amount of time we can release teachers from class to develop high quality curricula and reflect on practice; to provide for the weakest and poorest and those with greatest needs. We have maintained a healthy surplus in spite of growing staff costs. We have worked hard also to generate alternative sources of income, and know that we are in a much better situation than many schools.
But at a stroke, this year, all that has been removed. We wrote, along with many many other schools, to parents yesterday telling them about the likely impact of this year’s budget settlement on staffing and resources, and upon the educational prospects especially of those who need high levels of support. This cannot be laid at the door of the Local Authority. There are many things that we as heads would want to put at the door of the LA, and they know it, but funding is simply an issue of there not being enough, especially for the poorest and those with greatest need. Milton Keynes Council budget settlement is, proportionately, a LOT worse than the schools in that authority!
Primary schools are in a particular position – hardly ever do they have “extra” teachers in the school where money can be saved by releasing them. We have grown a system where teaching is a deservedly well-paid profession, a desirable investment in the future of the country’s children, and we are stuck with that. The edifice we have created has some ratios, such as teachers in a class, that cannot be shrunk without a huge disadvantage to children, and so we have to look elsewhere. The next most expensive items in a school are found in adults other than teachers – and even there, most schools are operating on a bare minimum for the needs they have: for years now, children who have been provided with necessary (because a statement of SEN or an Education Health Care Plan said so) support have tended to be granted less money for that support than it costs to employ the adult who provides it. So schools operate at this incremental loss all the time in order to help and support those who our society should be the best at caring for. And the more children with needs there are, the generally poorer off are the schools.
I cannot honestly see an answer to this except by increasing taxes on the most wealthy. The trouble about the way our society is structured is that the most wealthy generally do not use the state education system, but perpetrate the social divisions in British culture that says “if you don’t like the way that the state education/welfare/health system is providing for you, buy a different product outside that system.” There is nothing in the way we currently do social or political discourse that speaks of social responsibility of the wealthy for the weakest – and that this is worth doing because the prize is social cohesion, higher employment and a level of national harmony that will ultimately benefit everyone and create a society that is much more at ease with itself.
Every government since Thatcher has been petrified of taxing the wealthier members of our society. She didn’t have a concept of mutual responsibility, and being from the Hayek-Friedman stream of libertarian economics and market freedoms, her political convictions gave rise to, and allowed voice in British public life, the sort of demonically libertarian and plutocratic thinking that we now see in the thinking of people like Milo Yiannopoulos and Patrick Schumacher. The landscape of where we have got to now is a result of the triumph of this kind of thinking in our social, economic and political life. Until it is rooted out, personal liberty, perversely, will not flourish, because people do not feel safe; and, in a possibly unintended consequence in Thatcher’s thinking (but as a deliberate consequence in, say, Schumacher’s) people who do not feel safe are generally meaner, unkinder to neighbours, more selfish and less likely to want to imagine or contribute to the common good: all for the sake of increasing the number of very wealthy individuals in our tax base.
I mention this philosophic point only because we need to see clearly that the gospel is in direct contradiction of this philosophy. The failure of churches to stand up for the poor and to articulate, in their common life, a commitment to the common good has been disastrous and has led to the rise of philosophies, since the second world war, that now play far too free a hand in our national psyche, so we only have ourselves to blame. We also need to acknowledge that most local authorities and nearly all schools (exceptions are growing every day, unfortunately) are also committed to the common good, and to their communities, and to do that effectively, at this time, they need more money.
Rumour has it that some conservative MPs are now openly talking about tax rises to fund public services: these are the social democratic Tories whose arm must be strengthened if our national life is not to go the way of the “democracy” across the water.