School funding, grammars… 2016 has been ridiculous

If someone had said this time last year that by the end of 2016 I would be on the same side as Nicky Morgan and Lucy Powell and we’d all be trying to stop the first completely comprehensively-educated secretary of state from bringing back grammar schools I would have laughed in their face.

2016 has, quite simply, been ridiculous. It is now amazing to think that when George Osborne announced back in March that all schools would be made into academies the uproar would not only be rapidly pointless – as he recanted on his words quicker than the DfE scraps a leaked test – but also that it wouldn’t come close to the uproar over the government’s later green paper.

As Liam Collins says in his headteacher review of the year, though, there have been some oddly positive things. The primary school results described this week is one of them. After all the furore over the difficulty of the tests, it appears schools did rather well at them. Fewer are under the minimum standards this year than last – even though the tests are supposed to be “more rigorous”.

Is that because the figures were probably a bit fudged somewhere in a backroom? Weeellll, maybe. But even that thought is quite comforting. It’s nice to believe that a sensible mind or two are having a quiet word in the education department about the damage another unnecessary smack in the face would do to schools versus the benefits of going easy for a touch.

Good quality education is expensive and that isn’t going to change.

The release – finally! – of the national funding formula was a relief, although the fact it coincided with the National Audit Office (NAO) telling the education department off for its obliqueness around the scale of cuts facing the sector was ironic.

It is fair comment from the NAO, though. The government have been so busy sticking to the line that schools were not going to be worse off in terms of funding they failed to help leaders prepare. This is why we are now in a situation where schools are spending more than they have in their coffers – a situation which cannot last indefinitely. While local authorities were previously able to spread cash around in order to cover lean times, standalone academies and those in small trusts simply don’t have the reserve to do so. They are having to turn to Treasury coffers which won’t keep handing over cash on the never-never.

So what to do? A major problem of public services is that they cannot stop because of bankruptcy. Will the government really close a school if it can’t afford is heating bill? Where is the limit at which class sizes and staff cuts affect safety? And will more cash be forthcoming then?

Over the past few years I have often sat with politicians and businesspeople telling me the country “cannot afford” to spend so much money on schools.

This is of course a nonsense. All government is a series of choices and affordances can, and always will be made for the pet projects of favoured ministers. If war came tomorrow, we would afford it. Brexit is going to cost us dearly. Funny how no one is saying it won’t happen though.

Good quality education is expensive and that isn’t going to change. Smearing the cash around, like a child trying to pretend they’ve eaten their dinner, doesn’t hide the truth that the money is running out and there’s absolutely no plan for what to do next.

This is bad for everyone but it is particularly problematic for children with complex needs, as Billy Camden’s investigation “Councils digging around to fund special needs” shows. And there are likely to be increasing numbers of children with special needs in future as medical interventions continue improving the survival rate among premature babies who carry lifelong conditions with them into childhood.

If there is a small advent calendar door of hope, however, it is that this year showed we can never really know what is coming in the next. I couldn’t possibly have imagined Brexit, or grammars. Perhaps next year has greater, happier things awaiting than our brains can yet conceive.

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  1. Interesting double speak of government in almost every area, worthy of this pantomime season. “We have given you all the money” says National government. “Oh no you haven’t” replies the LA. Continued 3/4 times.
    “We have also given you extra high needs funding as well?”
    “It’s behind you!” Continued 3/4 times.
    Said the NG fairy
    “I will grant you 3 wishes!”
    “Please do your best for the lost boys we gave recently found?”
    “They can have a grammar school!”
    “They don’t want a grammar school!”
    “They can have a new Free school!”
    “They don’t want a new Free school!”
    “They can go to Toff’s school!”
    But the boys as ever underperformed, gave no reply and got lost again.
    And the sad Tory education minister did retreat back into her lantern. That’s magic.