The ups and downs of school finances have been exhausting to watch

It’s been a bumpy year, with school leaders left wondering who to watch for the next flurry of activity, says Matthew Clements-Wheeler.

As I write this, my daughter is happily bouncing with her friends at a party in a nearby indoor trampoline park. This group of teenagers is the perfect metaphor for education policy, ministerial careers and academy trust fortunes in 2016: plenty of enthusiastic jumping, with some falls, collisions, competition and injured pride along the way.

Bounce… at the start of the year, Frank Green was replaced by David Carter as national schools commissioner and Green’s airport analogy about multi-academy trusts became Carter’s “stages of MAT-readiness” for growth. Bounce… the Treasury took the lead on education policy, with the former chancellor announcing every school would be an academy and money to lengthen the school day would be found.

Bounce… the prime minister and chancellor were out of office and with them, Nicky Morgan and Sam Gyimah. Bounce… Justine Greening took over and Labour fielded enough shadow education secretaries that many of us wondered when it would be our turn to have a go? Bounce… the white paper was replaced with a green paper. Bounce… Perry Beeches and Durand academy trusts fell from grace, with other notable trusts and their chief executives.

Bounce… the government avoided rushing headlong into phase 2 of consultations on the national funding formula. Bounce… academy trust governance was the solution to, or the cause of, all manner of problems in the system.

This year has been an unpredictable, contested space in education and school operations, with school leaders left wondering who to watch for the next flurry of activity. Should we watch the DfE, Downing St or the Treasury for a clue as to the next major policy announcement?

The trampoline has become threadbare in places

As 2016 closes, we are less clear on the direction of travel than before, more uncertain and more dependent on our own networks and partners to chart a course for our schools and our pupils. Perhaps this somewhat unsettling feeling is what a school-led system feels like?

In that case, we need the DfE to decide if it is going to stand next to the trampolines as a coach who helps us do better. David Carter’s model of identifying and sharing good practice is a good example of this coaching style. What we don’t want is the department acting as an overbearing parent, micro-managing and telling us what to do every step of the way.

Connections are vital. Not just between schools but between schools, businesses, and the third sector. These become a safety net that flexes through good times and bad to support individual pupils, families and communities, but also a trampoline that magnifies the outcome when pupils make an effort.

But there are worrying gaps opening up in the trampoline. Whole communities are without a safety net; toxic finances or persistent problems prevent their local academy from being rebrokered. Take Baverstock in Birmingham, where financial issues and long-term underperformance have made finding a new sponsor difficult, with closure on the horizon. Without a good school, how can pupils succeed?

Elsewhere, the trampoline has become threadbare; headteachers in West Sussex warned that lack of funding was forcing them to consider cutting opening hours. Across the country, union leaders and heads reported recruitment problems. Although some parts of the trampoline have been well maintained, thanks to successful condition improvement fund bids, others were wearing out as the remaining maintained schools tried to patch things up from devolved formula capital.

With the second phase of the national funding formula consultation outstanding, and the DfE’s “softer” approach to full academisation still to be fully understood, it is perhaps naive to ask for a level playing field for all schools in 2017. So I’ll stick to the trampoline analogy and suggest that, if we all hold hands and stick together, at least no one will fall off.


Matthew Wheeler is head of professional standards at the National Association of School Business Management

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