After the gold rush: Funding, staffing and uncertain times

15 December 2016 by Rob Webster

In a year many of us would rather forget, one undoubted high point was Team GB’s performance at the Rio Olympics. While it’s true the sports with the greater medal potential attract more funding and attention – at the expense of others – the overall effect has been to elevate Team GB to the status of Olympic ‘superpower’ in the space of just four Games.

The showing of the home nations at the Olympics and in the recent PISA rankings is hardly comparing like with like, but it's not entirely spurious, if you consider Team GB’s success was attributable to sustained investment, plus a careful nurturing of talent and an obsessive culture of relentless improvement through marginal gains. I'll leave the comparisons with the dominant theroies, processes and attitudes to teacher supply and retention and school improvement to you...

This week, the National Audit Office became the latest high profile body to weigh into the debate on school funding. Against the backdrop of an 8% real terms cut in spending per pupil over the next four years, the NAO offered a damning verdict: the Dept. for Education’s approach to managing the risks to schools’ financial sustainability, it concluded, “cannot be judged to be effective or providing value for money”.

Justine Greening’s attempt to defuse an already a tense situation by announcing a long-awaited new national funding formula on the same day as the NAO report, will assuage some concerns in some areas. But with almost as many schools losing out as gaining in the proposed settlement, to many in the profession, this is no more than an attempt to distribute the inevitable pain more evenly.

By the DfE’s own estimates, just over half of the £3 billion worth of savings required by 2019/20 will come from workforce efficiencies. Read into that what you will, but survey after survey of school leaders reveals that after years of public sector austerity, the only area left to make savings demanded of them is by jettisoning teachers and support staff.

Many of these surveys have additionally shown that schools are more likely to cut classroom support staff posts ahead of teaching posts. While every section of the school workforce may fear an uncertain future, it’s teaching assistants who feel the more vulnerable. Some are fighting back. In November, for perhaps the first time ever, disputes over TAs’ contracts and pay in Durham and Derby resulted in school closures due to strike action.

It’s clear that the DfE will not mandate which roles schools should retain and which to cut, or how many to cut. Under the aegis of school autonomy, it will keep its hands clean by saying it’s for individual headteachers to decide.

I don’t believe school leaders wish to lose any of their hard-working TAs, who have dedicated their labour, and perhaps many years of their life, to working with disadvantaged and vulnerable children. Schools I work with value their TAs as much as their teachers. Where it happens – and in my experience, it’s mercifully rare – decisions to reduce TA numbers are a last resort and are never taken lightly.

All this leads me to two thoughts. Firstly, there will be anger and frustration. So if (or when) staffing cuts happen, train your fire in the right place. Put cuts in context. When school leaders are left with no option but to reduce staff numbers, it’s because they are responding to financial pressures over which they are having scandalously little influence. NAHT, ASCL and other groups have been consistent and urgent in their messages, yet the government has remained stubbornly tin-earred to their well-founded anxieties. To revisit our Olympics analogy, would our summer gold rush have happened if money had drained away from UK Sport over the last 16 years, rather than been flooded into it? What governments choose to fund, and how much they choose to invest, tells you a lot about their priorities. I’ll leave it there.

The second thought is more pragmatic. Increasingly, leadership teams look to research evidence to inform decision-making on how best to invest limited resources. About a third of school leaders use the Education Endowment Foundation’s (EEF) Teaching and Learning Toolkit for this purpose. When it comes to workforce development, it’s essential leaders have a good grasp on what the research says about the best use of TAs and their impact, and do not jump to the wrong conclusions and decisions on the basis of a thin reading of the evidence.

There is now good evidence, actionable guidance and practical tools to help school leaders make more informed decisions about how to improve the way TAs are deployed and supported, and to help them thrive in their role. To support this, we’ve now put together a comprehensive interactive online course with our colleagues at the EEF and TES Institute. And it’s all FREE!!

Although research evidence cannot offer the certainties we crave, it can help school leaders decision-making in uncertain times. Schools have held up remarkably well over the last six years of turbulence and public spending restraint. You should be proud of yourselves. Remember: this too shall pass.