As we come together today in Birmingham with more than 1,300 trust leaders for the Confederation of School Trust’s annual conference, it is clear that we need a radical shift in our national approach to education.
We must continue to emphasise the duty of care that the historian and academic Peter Hennessy has called for. As we learn how to live in a post-pandemic world wracked with uncertainty, we must remember the call in his book A Duty of Care: Britain Before and After Covid – that I cited at conference last year – to find the “pessimism-breaking policies” that bring out our best.
We must, in his words, continue to reach for “the people, the purpose, the language, and the optimism to shift [our current] system and replace it with something much closer to who we are and, above all, who we can be.”
But as we do so we must also recognise that our school system itself is fragile.
The state must act to build its resilience. It must do so in a way that sees these challenges in the round and with measures that must be located in a wider approach to system resilience.
Multiple factors are putting pressure on our children, families and schools. We are still wrestling with the negative legacies of Covid. The impact of inflation, especially in essentials like food and energy, means many more children and families live in absolute poverty. We have seen large increases in the number of children and young people experiencing mental ill health, exacerbated by the decimation of the services – especially the NHS and both child and adult social care – around schools. In our own institutions, we struggle with an ongoing school workforce recruitment and retention crisis.
Tackling this is challenging, but it is possible. We need to build the resilience of our school system, alongside the resilience of our wider public services, our communities, and the resilience of children and families.
To quote Public First’s Jonathan Simons, we believe we need not a big state or a small state, but a strategic state.
And at CST we believe the state has four strategic roles in relation to the school system which should be the priorities of this government now, and should also be the priorities of whoever is in power after the next general election whatever their political stripe.
A workforce plan
The current workforce strategy is woeful. We need an evidence-led approach for the whole of the schools workforce, including the recruitment and retention of teachers and a plan to address shortage subjects.
Fair and sufficient funding
The system is crying out for fair per-pupil funding that is sufficient, sustainable, equitable and includes weighting for disadvantage. It should be evident to all that we also need a capital funding framework that ensures we have enough school places, and schools that are safe and good places of learning.
Trusts also need certainty and confidence in proportionate and intelligent frameworks for public accountability, inspection, and regulation at school and trust levels.
Wider public services
Our schools cannot function to their full potential unless children, young people, and families are adequately supported. This includes critical reforms to the SEND system and mental health services, and improving wider services that address endemic issues like youth violence.
We want a strategic state to focus relentlessly on the things that are putting pressure on children, families, schools and communities. So, we also urgently need a cross-government strategy to address the crippling issues of poverty, which is in strong driver of poor attendance and the attainment gap.
Finally, if we are to see education as the building of who we can be, rife with that optimism Hennessy called for, we also need an end to the conflation in the policy discourse of social mobility and social justice.
The former is the lifting up of a few. The latter is the lifting up of all.
I believe education is (or should be) a force for social justice – a wider common good. A resilient system, supported by government but led by the sector, will help us achieve that.