With more than a quarter of primary school leaders quitting their posts within five years, something must be done. But the DfE shows no signs of wanting to engage with the real issues, says Paul Whiteman

The hearts of senior leaders, teachers and other school employees must sink whenever the government and education are mentioned in the same breath in the media.

In the last week alone, we’ve seen revelations which lay bare chaos, duplicity and a lack of cohesion at the centre of government when it comes to education policy, as well as the contempt with which the profession is seemingly held in some quarters.

First, levelling up secretary Michael Gove suggested that child benefits could be stopped for parents whose children are persistently absent, a proposal as misguided as it was out of the blue.

Attendance is only likely to be tackled successfully through better support services and resources for schools to work with families, with staff already deeply concerned about the growing numbers of children in poverty and the impact on their learning and wellbeing.

It felt like a clumsy attempt at chasing a cheap headline, and a government spokesperson was forced to admit there were no plans to implement the policy.

Then came the publication of WhatsApp messages sent by former health secretary Matt Hancock during the pandemic. Then education secretary Gavin Williamson suggested to Hancock that teachers were workshy after Hancock described teaching unions as “a load of arses”.

At the time, Covid levels were high and school leaders and their staff had been working flat-out for months to minimise the impact on children’s education. That meant adapting to teaching remotely, supporting and keeping school open for vulnerable and key-worker families, keeping on top of changing regulations, and trying to protect the health of themselves and their pupils.

Williamson portrayed himself as a champion of schools, but to belittle these efforts was truly appalling. It would be bad enough if this was needy echo-chamber bravado, but if these were genuinely held views it is hugely concerning just how out of touch the government is.

Let’s be clear. School staff are doing an absolutely crucial job in ever-trying circumstances and have negotiated not only the pandemic, but also years of austerity.

I was reminded how the government has halved real-terms funding for major school rebuilding and refurbishment projects since 2010 by the tensions highlighted in the WhatsApp exchanges between ministers making decisions based on politics and making them in the interests of safety.

Investment in the school estate is a political choice and there should never be cutting of corners when it comes to pupil and staff safety. It’s little wonder that the Department for Education was forced to upgrade the risk of buildings near the end of their life expectancy collapsing to “critical” and “very likely”. But it still has no idea which buildings are most at risk and the government appears to be dealing with the issue on a largely reactive basis, without clear leadership or a plan for action and investment. This seems to be a recurring theme.

Austerity has also affected other public services including local government and health, which has had a knock-on effect on schools. Now more than ever, staff are on the frontline in picking up the pieces when other services are no longer able to help pupils impacted by issues in their home lives – be it arriving hungry due to the cost of living crisis or struggling with their mental health. They are often leaders, teachers, social workers and counsellors rolled into one.

Our members also face an unacceptable workload and enormous pressure, including high-stakes, often crude, assessments of school and pupil performance. Yet their pay has fallen by 19% in real-terms since 2010 (NAHT, 2023), and it is therefore no surprise that the profession is facing a severe recruitment and retention crisis.

Our research (NAHT, 2022) found that more than a quarter (27%) of primary school leaders left their post within five years, of whom more than half (52%) quit teaching in state-funded schools.

We have raised all these things with the Department for Education and secretary of state Gillian Keegan amid the on-going industrial dispute. I truly hope their understanding of the pressures facing school staff and their appreciation of their hard work is better than that of Gavin Williamson, who demonstrated astonishing ignorance. It wouldn’t take much.

There have been chinks of light, mainly November’s pledge of an extra £2.3bn in funding for schools for each of the next two years on the back of a campaign by NAHT and others – although it appears schools may have to fund future staff pay awards from this cash.

However, at the time of writing the department has refused to sit down with unions to begin intense negotiations to resolve the industrial dispute, and unlike other sectors, we have yet to receive concrete proposals on pay and working conditions. The government is instead seemingly engaging in political oneupmanship by refusing to talk further until the National Education Union calls off strikes.

We have previously been told that the government cannot afford to protect school staff from further large real-term pay cuts amid soaring inflation. But £30bn extra wriggle-room has now been found in the public finances as the Budget approaches (Emmerson et al, 2023). Many staff will therefore be forgiven for thinking it is another political choice if a fair pay offer does not materialise. If ministers are serious about repairing relations with school staff, reducing the risk of burn-out, and, crucially, making sure schools have the staff they need to teach our children, detailed proposals are needed – and soon.

Paul Whiteman is general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers. Read his previous articles for Headteacher Update via https://bit.ly/htu-whiteman1

Further information & resources

  • Emmerson, Stockton & Zaranko: The fiscal backdrop to Spring Budget 2023, Institute for Fiscal Studies, February 2023: http://bit.ly/3LaOPTw
  • NAHT: Gone for good: Leaders who are lost to the teaching profession, November 2022: https://bit.ly/3ZTUzoF
  • NAHT: NAHT evidence submission to the School Teachers’ Review Body’s (STRB) 33rd remit, January 2023: https://bit.ly/3l0mSD7