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8 March 2019updated 24 Jul 2021 3:04am

Department for Education doublespeak exposes how out of touch with our schools it is

“It’s very much a kneejerk response – there’s half a dozen little mantras that they trot out.”

By Anoosh Chakelian

Headteachers are growing ever more frustrated with the Department for Education. The latest example is a joint letter by 7,000 heads being sent to 3.5 million families today, warning about a worsening crisis in schools funding.

The letter, which will reach parents across 65 local authorities, claims the Education Secretary Damian Hinds hasn’t had room in his diary to meet the headteachers’ pressure group behind the campaign, Worth Less?

In the letter, the group claims it was told by a “junior civil servant” that DfE ministers’ “time is heavily pressurised and their diaries need to be prioritised according to ministerial, parliamentary and constituency business”. It also details the funding pressures that English schools face, stating that, since 2010, their budgets have fallen on average by 8 per cent in real terms, with 20 per cent cuts in funding for sixth form and post-16 students.

During an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, one of the headteachers explained how her school’s stretched budget had forced her to do the hoovering, wash the toilets and serve food to pupils herself.

This is something I discovered when reporting on overstretched schools in the New Statesman’s “Crumbling Britain” series about austerity in January. A Sheffield head told me how she had had to clean the toilets in the infant school she’s run for 14 years.

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Headteachers, traditionally not a particularly rebellious demographic, protested outside Downing Street against education spending cuts last September – with over 1,000 turning out. Some hadn’t attended a demonstration in decades.

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“People were walking around in suits at a protest,” is how one headteacher attendee described it to me. “The thought of doing that ten years ago is ridiculous.”

The big problem for heads is that speaking out could mean putting parents off their school – therefore losing money by failing to fill places. But increasingly, this barrier is falling away, as teachers can no longer take such a dire financial situation.

According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, total school spending per pupil fell by 8 per cent in real terms between 2009/10 and 2017/18 – with added pressure from the 55 per cent real-terms cuts to local authority spending on public services, and a more than 20 per cent cut in sixth form spending per student in that period.

Back in 2016, the National Audit Office warned the government that its overall schools budget “does not provide for funding per pupil to increase in line with inflation”, predicting “funding per pupil will, on average, rise only from £5,447 in 2015/16 to £5,519 in 2019/20, a real-terms reduction once inflation is taken into account”.

Yes, the government has ringfenced the core schools budget since 2010, the Chancellor Philip Hammond announced an extra £400m for schools in last year’s Budget, and councils’ high needs funding has received an additional £350m.

But this is a drop in the ocean to headteachers who have had enough. That £400m is in capital funding, which means it cannot be spent on the “little extras” patronisingly signalled by Hammond last year because capital spending is only for maintenance and investment purchases like equipment – not revenue outlays.

And as for the additional £350m high needs funding for councils – that’s split over two years up until 2019/20, and nothing compared with the £536m high needs funding gap calculated by the Local Government Association in 2018 alone.

Yet this doesn’t stop the DfE always repeatedly stating that “school funding in England is at its highest ever level” – a line that’s become a joke among headteachers I’ve spoken to, with one repeating it in a mocking voice when describing the state of her school to me.

Even when I asked for a comment on the headteachers’ letter, the DfE delivered the same line (my emphasis):

School funding in England is at its highest ever level, rising from almost £41bn in 2017-18 to £43.5bn by 2019-20. In addition, standards are rising; the attainment gap between disadvantaged students and their more affluent peers has narrowed since 2011; the proportion of pupils in good or outstanding schools has increased since 2010; and our primary school children have achieved their highest ever score on international reading tests.”

Headteachers, who experience funding cuts at the frontline, see this as doublespeak.

“The biggest concern probably that I have currently is that there is a real lack of trust about the DfE. There is a credibility gap there in terms of DfE pronouncements,” Alan Brookes, the headmaster of Fulston Manor comprehensive academy in Kent, told me in January.

“It’s very much a kneejerk response – figures of ‘more money than ever before in schools’, there’s half a dozen little mantras that they trot out.”

He found a “depressing” lack of “common purpose or common cause” from the department. “Naively, you think the government department that’s looking after education ought to be on the side of education, and ought to be pushing away, kicking away for education. And we just don’t get that sense, we get the sense that there is little there that we feel is by schools, for schools.”

Although ministers have met with campaigners from Worth Less? in the past, and Hinds meets with teachers and headteachers and their unions, there is also a concern about their lack of credibility among heads.

Brookes described “a lack of real understanding of what is happening in schools” from the Schools Minister Nick Gibb during a recent meeting when schools in a deprived area of Kent were discussed. He told me the minister was “horrified” that so few students in a particular school were doing the EBacc (the English Baccalaureate – a Gove-era challenging exam system focusing on core subjects, intended to replace GCSEs) or learning French.

“I said, ‘because they can’t read, minister!’” Brookes recalls. “[There is] that level of mismatch in the understanding of what we’re trying to do.”