Funding, inspection and statistics...

Written by: Paul Whiteman | Published:

It is hard to know what 2019 will bring. Continued challenge and change is perhaps the only thing we can bank on. Paul Whiteman looks ahead to 2019, but you won’t find him making any predictions...

Dodgy predictions are 10-a-penny at this time of year, so I won’t add to the noise. However, I’m not going out on a limb too much by saying that 2019 will be another year of great change in education.

School leaders are used to coping with change. There’s never a period of rest when in that job. So school leaders are well equipped to deal with whatever 2019 throws at them.

The challenge for us at NAHT, at a policy level at least, is to encourage the government to make positive rather than negative interventions. In that respect, 2019 will be very much like the previous 12 months.

January brings the annual appearance of Ofsted’s chief inspector before the Education Select Committee to discuss her Annual Report.

The elephant in the room during the Annual Report’s launch last month was school funding. As I said at the time, an annual health-check of the nation’s education system is incomplete without a view about whether the demands placed on schools can be met within the current financial picture. The time has come when Ofsted must take a view on this issue.

I wonder whether Robert Halfon, the Education Select Committee’s chair, will ask the chief inspector for one.
Under his chairmanship, the committee has moved further towards the concept of a 10-year funding plan for education, in much the same way we have seen in the NHS. Some long-term policy-making of this nature could well be a good thing and may be the only thing that allows the government to give itself permission to increase funding.

Up to now, they have just repeated the line that there’s more money in education than ever before. A 10-year plan for funding and standards would give them the wriggle room to increase funding without it looking like a u-turn.

Whatever happens we do need an alternative to the tin-eared and leaden-footed approach of the past two years. MPs must also show they have a proper grasp of the funding issue too, they really must. Up to now they are still allowing the government to wriggle off the hook.

Back in the early days of the school funding campaign (January 2017 to be precise), the shadow education secretary Angela Rayner made a quip in the House of Commons. She asserted that the government’s plans for school funding meant that some parts of the country would lose out to others. “Robbing Peterborough to pay Poole,” was the line she used.

In return, Nick Gibb retorted that both constituencies would see an increase in funding. In December 2018, the politically neutral House of Commons Library produced an exhaustive analysis of school funding allocations by each English constituency.

According to this impartial analysis, Peterborough has seen a 3.5 per cent fall in per-pupil funding from 2013/14 to 2017/18 (around £169 per child). Poole has dropped by 4.4 per cent over the same period (around £185 per child). So young people in both constituencies are being robbed.

The data presented by the House of Commons Library is remarkably similar to the School Cuts website that NAHT, the National Education Union and others put together in order to illustrate the crisis in school funding.

Both websites use the same government datasets to make their conclusions. A quick look at the School Cuts website shows that pupils in Peterborough have lost £122 each due to the government’s real-terms cuts. Pupils in Poole have lost £93 each.

So, the House of Commons Library paints a slightly worse picture than we did via the School Cuts website. The government said the School Cuts website was “scare-mongering”. The House of Commons Library is proudly celebrating 200 years of providing “politically impartial briefing to MPs of all parties and their staff”.

Let’s not forget at this point that the government has been criticised by the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) for a lack of impartiality, painting a more optimistic picture of school funding and standards than is actually the case. In October, Sir David Norgrove, chair of the UKSA urged the Department for Education to ensure that data is “properly presented in a way that does not mislead”.

Of course, education is just one of the many different issues that MPs grapple with on any given day. The House of Commons Library must be a godsend for an MP who wants to make a sensible contribution to a debate without in-depth knowledge of their own to draw upon.

It doesn’t help them if the government is presenting data in a misleading way. Not surprisingly, when we polled MPs on the school funding crisis just over half believed that it was real.

Opinion was split down party lines, as you might expect, with nearly all (96 per cent) Labour MPs agreeing that there is a funding crisis in schools, compared to one in six (16 per cent) Conservative MPs. Even so, if 16 per cent of Conservatives are now willing to acknowledge that there is a crisis, it’s fair to say that our campaigning is having an impact. As campaigners, this gives us hope. But it also tells us that there is more to do.

To return to where we began, there is also “more to do” where inspection and accountability is concerned. September 2019 will see the implementation of Ofsted’s new inspection framework. While reform is needed, we have serious concerns that Ofsted has not left itself enough time to make it happen without causing chaos and additional workload across the system.

We will be working hard on behalf of all schools to make sure that the new framework is an improvement on the last one. If that means Ofsted has to go back to the drawing board, then so be it. We only ask Ofsted for one thing – that they are held to account fairly for the work that they do. My plea to Ofsted is that they allow the profession to shape the new inspection framework. School leaders have earned that right. We’ll do all we can to make sure this happens.

So, 2019. Another busy year. But then you knew that already.

  • Paul Whiteman is general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers.

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