The year has ended as quietly as it started on the unlevel playing pitch of education football, with schools, teachers and leaders all getting a good kicking.
Festive cheer was not forthcoming from the Centre for Social Justice’s inquiry into poverty, reporting catastrophic increases in domestic violence, poor mental health, those on benefits and addictions across the country.
Although shocking, this is unsurprising to those working in schools. We remain on the front lines, always accessible to parents and carers who struggle the most to educate and support their children. Q3 Academy Tipton in the Black Country is no different to the many schools providing free and subsidised uniform, lunches for those not quite meeting the threshold for free school meals, school equipment, bus fares, and now Christmas food hampers and presents for children likely to go without.
Our pastoral staff identified 15 young people for whom not receiving a present was a very real possibility; if that is heart-breaking, so are their wish lists. They haven’t asked for top-of-the-range phones or consoles; they’ve asked for coats, colouring books, beauty basics and chocolate. When the list went out to staff, it was provided five times over within 24 hours. And these are staff who were repeatedly and publicly maligned earlier in the year for taking industrial action over pay.
Managing the strikes was one of many utterly avoidable challenges this year, and all the more frustrating because resolving the dispute didn’t seem to be a DfE priority. Doing everything in our power to keep lessons going, particularly for exam years and the most vulnerable, school leaders could barely believe the comments from our union leaders about how negotiations were progressing.
The unsettling impact of industrial action did little to help recover pupil attendance, although in terms of causes it barely scratches the surface. The Centre for Social Justice estimates that severe absence from school has jumped up 134 per cent. Political positions are rife, but solutions are few beyond schools needing to try harder and fining parents more – as if attendance wasn’t a top priority for every school leader in spite of having less time, less money and less staff.
Of course, we are more than accustomed to everyone else being experts in how to run schools; we receive guidance, advice, missives and helpful suggestions regularly. Sadly, they often arrive long after the horse has bolted. A case in point: the DfE last released a guidance on AI in March 2023 despite rapid development. Perhaps ChatGPT can help?
And another: guidance on transgender pupils, first promised in 2018, still hasn’t materialised. We are told to expect it ‘before Christmas’, but it has been repeatedly postponed, not least because of legal advice that parts may have been unlawful. Like many other schools, we have a number of transgender students – and have done for a very long time. It really isn’t a big deal, and makes very little difference to the safety of our toilets.
The vast majority of young people who question their identify are now fully supported by their parents; when they are not, schools are deft at managing this in a sensitive and appropriate way. But repeated delays cause anxiety: if it’s not controversial, why the hold-up? Is this the return of Section 28 for the 21st Century?
Frankly, with all this going on it’s unsurprising that Nick Gibb has quit the sector – and evidently the country. With a SEND system struggling to keep up, let alone improve, and the complete collapse of recruitment and retention, people will not only question how the price of a higher PISA ranking has been paid, but whether it can be sustained at all.
But the most traumatic legacy of 2023 will surely be the death of Ruth Perry. Perhaps there is a glimmer of hope, as we head into 2024, that the changing of the guard at Ofsted and a looming general election will bring about deep, radical change to inspection.
At the very least, it’s time to account for the reality of the slanted pitch schools are expected to perform on. This isn’t football. We can’t keep getting a relentless kicking. And we are beyond the point of a motivational pep talk.