By Geoff Barton
General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders
It increasingly seems as if there are two entirely different perceptions of what is happening in the education system in England at the moment.
In the first, another wave of coronavirus infections is ripping through schools and colleges. Large numbers of staff and pupils are absent with the illness. In some instances the situation is so bad that classes and year groups are being sent home.
Many school and college leaders are on their knees from the exhaustion of simply trying to keep their settings operational. And they are desperately anxious in particular about the impact on students who are shortly due to sit exams – young people who have already experienced severe disruption over the course of the past two years.
School and college budgets – already squeezed to breaking point – face having to take another massive hit because of soaring energy bills. Teacher shortages are likely to become worse with declining morale, under-recruitment to initial teacher training programmes, and the prospect of a below-inflation pay award for experienced teachers and leaders next year.
ASCL members will recognise this reality. Many of you have written to us to tell us just how desperate the situation has become. It is what is actually happening.
Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, there appears to be a view that it is pretty much back to business as normal. Ofsted inspections can take place, performance tables can be published based on this summer’s exam results, and free Covid testing can be scrapped.
Arbitrary targets over maths and English attainment are set out for eight years’ time in a lacklustre white paper, together with minimum hours for the school week, and a gimmicky ‘parent pledge’ about what extra support will be provided to pupils.
A long-awaited green paper is published setting out far-off changes to special educational needs support which will not solve the immediate crisis and does not seem to fully address the financial pressure on schools either.
And it assumes that schools and colleges, of course, have plenty of money any way.
In fact, they have never had it so good.
This is the alternate reality which seems to prevail in the environs of the government and its agencies – one which is entirely at odds with what is actually happening.
This is more than merely irritating. The government’s responsibility and role in education should surely be to understand the pressures on schools and colleges and provide them with the support that they need as far as that is possible. If it does not do that then what exactly is the point of the expensive Whitehall machine that taxpayers fund?
There are limits on what can be done because there are always other priorities and considerations as well as finite resources. We accept that.
However, it sometimes feels as though the government, rather than supporting schools and colleges, is actually working in opposition to them. This has certainly felt like one of those times. Not only has the government completely failed to act on the current wave of disruption, but it has actively reduced the available mitigations while heaping on more pressure with inspections, performance tables, and a new set of targets.
Many of the messages from members that I have read over the past few weeks indicate a profession which is tired, demoralised and feeling abandoned. A profession which has had enough.
The government needs to stop taking the commitment and goodwill of school and college leaders for granted. If it is not careful it will see ever-increasing numbers decide they have had enough of the relentless pressure, endless hours, and a government that never seems to have their back.
People will only take so much before they vote with their feet.
is ASCL General Secretary.