The Conservatives have a clear majority. So what is the reality for school leaders, governors and teachers?
Many of us will remember the 1997 election and the glow of Tony Blair’s campaign mantra: education, education, education! We recall, too, the excellent, school-sympathetic secretaries of state for education under Labour – Blunkett, Morris, Johnson, even Balls – as well as Andrew Adonis’ passionate commitment to helping the more deprived children reach parity of achievement through the academy programme.
Michael Gove was more divisive. His academy expansion and free schools dynamism have changed provision, probably forever. His multi-academy trusts are a genuine structural alternative to local authorities. But he perhaps underestimated how much you need allies as well as enemies. Few of us will forget wondering if he meant that we were part of “the blob”. Nicky Morgan has been rewarded for her more emollient approach.
Teachers are not the only game in town in a well-run school
School budgets will be severely under pressure throughout the new parliament. It doesn’t help that the press too often equates any sum – especially cuts – in terms only of how many teachers will go. Teachers are vital, but they are not the only game in town in a well-run school. Many successful academy sponsors find that coherent staffing policies can save money for other things, while standards rise.
The reality is:
– The money available for schools will decline sharply
– Ministers believe that schools don’t need to have as many teachers as they say they do
– They also know there is strong evidence that class size is not a proxy for school improvement
– They have proved that you can build good new school buildings for less than half what was once the norm
– Evidence shows that schools – teachers, leaders and governors – are less good than they should be at getting value for money (VFM) from their income
– Unions have concentrated on the “crisis” of teacher recruitment and the “crisis” of an ageing teacher population – both without coming up with constructive solutions beyond the “cut the excessive workload” panacea
We cannot afford to ignore the fact that:
– About one third of the state money that goes into education ends up in the private sector, with for-profit companies running good VFM contracts
– The best schools already save thousands every month by tendering and letting watertight contracts that cost less but deliver more
– Few schools have taken advantage of the increased spending autonomy over the past 20 years
– Critically, heads and governors have the right, through performance assessment, to control their salary bills, just as they have had the right to control employee numbers for 25 years. Not all have done that
– Above all, school leaders can now reward outstanding performance, encourage improvement, and reduce the drain on standards and budgets by having staff who are less than good or outstanding. It will not be popular or comfortable. But woe betide school leaders who complain that they don’t have the resources. They do, and must use them wisely.
So school leaders will need to get better at negotiating: whether in collaborative groupings of peers, or with potential suppliers. They can learn that compromise is not a sign of weakness, and, above all, they will appreciate that savings are a means to an end; not an end in itself! And they will need to get more political.
With a new Conservative government, here are some questions school leaders, staff and governors should ask:
1. Given that local authorities (LAs) have lost so much funding – and therefore influence over education in the past 15 years – how realistic is it for teachers and schools to look to them for support?
2. Are LAs doing enough to re-shape their roles?
3. Are the new regional schools commissioners (RSCs) doing enough to raise standards?
4. Should the RSCs have oversight of all schools?
5. What training would help heads and governors let better-value contracts?
6. Can performance management of teachers ever work?
7. Is it ever fair for a close colleague to have a key role in deciding the level of another teacher’s pay?
8. If annual pay rises stop, how will teachers stay motivated?
9. Central government controls and initiatives have declined. But can schools be trusted to improve themselves?
10. Is collaboration with other schools ever more than additional workload?