SSAT content executive Diana Whistance-Smith highlights key themes and comments – and audience reactions – at the recent Schools and Academies Show
The Schools & Academies Show on 3-4 April presented conflicting angles about ongoing academic uncertainties, which boiled down to the issues addressed in the show’s title: funding, fulfilment and futures. In particular, the panel discussions ‘Now we really need to talk about funding’ and ‘Social mobility: creating schools where every child succeeds’ illuminated major problem areas that schools are combatting.
In the words of Damian Hinds, “funding is the single most prevalent question.” His understanding of limited finances and the difficulty of managing teachers’ and schools’ wishes “to achieve the impossible with minimal resources” resonated with the crowd of the curious and concerned delegates. Advocating for the best interest of children remained a top priority on everyone’s agenda.
The 2019-2020 budgets sent out to schools have left them with “real pressures to face”, said Tom Goldman, deputy director for the Department for Education. According to Goldman, the average budget for a school in the coming year is as tight as it was last year – but poorer performing schools will receive a smaller budget than last year, as a result of reducing pupil numbers, among other factors.
Goldman highlighted the “fierce competition across government for money that is available” once the 2020 fiscal year begins. As resources dwindle and the scrutiny schools are under to perform against these pressures increases, funding, especially for SEND, has become a primary concern.
Although the panelists concluded that the “funding formula is a work in progress”, much remains left up for debate in terms of schools’ futures.
Social justice for the disadvantaged
The upcoming spending review may profoundly affect the quality of education, Hinds stressed. “So much of what happens in our society relies on education [which] is a complex organism…. You can’t have schools without great teachers and that requires quantity as well as quality.”
Stephen Morales, CEO of the Institute of School Business Leadership, focused on how schools are responding to this education overhaul rather than those responsible for it. His impression was that not every school may be handling their resources effectively. According to Morales, while many positive steps are being taken to lessen the increasing pressures on schools, an inequity continues to plague the system. The minimal funds that schools are struggling with are not distributed fairly, not to mention being managed as they should be. No further time should be wasted on anything that will not benefit children, he declared.
Sammy Wright, vice principal of Southmoor Academy, reflected on his own experiences of never-before-seen fragility in his Sunderland school students, demonstrating the impacts that the system’s perils have had on the disadvantaged more than anyone. “I think there is a genuine issue that in an effort to push students through the exam system, we end up disempowering them…” he said. “It wasn’t their fault, it was the fault of the system.”
The general consensus was that taking students seriously as learners should be the system’s top priority, with disadvantaged pupils at the forefront of this recognition.
Attainment gap and SEND
Poor employment strategies, especially in SEND, was a major problem for Debbie Clinton, CEO of the Academy Transformation Trust. She argued that the difficult financial times for schools must not result in neglecting SEND students; some schools have allowed SEND to receive the brunt of the financial blow, in her view.
David Laws, CEO of the Education Policy Institute and former Liberal Democrat schools minister, countered this inequity by noting significant progress in closing the attainment gap in primary and secondary schools, by as much as 25%. However, with every peak come pitfalls – notably the ‘enormous’ gap of 18 months of learning where premium pupils have fallen behind the rest of the school population.
Laws also alluded to Morales’ point by discussing the plateaued gap for the most disadvantaged young people – one of the biggest problems of the decade. In Laws’ opinion, while the gap has narrowed, the rate at which it has been narrowing has been slowing. As pressures on poorer families continue to increase, he resolved that momentum to reduce the disadvantage gap needs to be sustained.
Parents and the ‘magic triangle’
A connection between students, parents and teachers in what Sonia Blandford deemed the ‘magic triangle’ demonstrated how focusing on the child’s wellbeing above all would in turn make the learning experience for all involved parties much smoother. The founder and CEO of Achievement for All addressed three key areas explored in the National Children’s Bureau’s Born to Fail study that the country needs to fix: housing, delivering better curriculum, and caring more.
While the study was originally published decades ago, she incorporated it into her work as of 2017, and reflected on her participation in the study as a child due to her upbringing. Her first-hand experience gave her a thoughtful perspective on an overlooked category in this educational debacle: the parents.
“In valuing every child in every context, you have to value their parents,” she said. “The one person everybody wants to impress in life is their parents.”
Blandford elaborated on this with her understanding of four key stages in a child’s potential for reaching academic success: the “I can do something” stage; “I do” access stage; “I have” when a child achieves; and the “I am” recognition stage. Children, parents and teachers being on board with this mentality is essential.
Debbie Clinton touched on Blandford’s point in acknowledging the challenges that school regions beyond London face, especially those that can distract from the child being the central focus, through quality-first teaching. She maintained that her continuous struggle to obtain pensions and provisions for teachers makes it difficult to secure the quality-first teaching that children rightly deserve.
Solutions: what help and where?
“How much of the solution lies within schools and how much does the policy architecture outside schools need to be changed?” was Laws’ final point of consideration for the panelists.
Sammy Wright supported Debbie Clinton’s point: some of the resources made available to certain communities are not equally distributed to others, he said. He also stressed the importance of schools engaging more directly with their students. However, he understood that tackling various in-school problems related to funding and teacher supply will take a lot more than a one-on-one conversation (or government statement) to fix – especially with schools in disadvantaged areas.
Clinton responded with a proposed re-evaluation of pupil premium and gaining a better understanding of the effects of school on a child’s wellbeing. After all, these children’s living circumstances have led to many of their difficulties within the school system: “The one thing that all of these children have in common is their poverty… treating them as a number is a huge error.”
Hinds’ recommendations for improvement embodied a “change in thinking”, including teachers in their second year of the profession receiving additional support, and more flexible options being offered to eliminate the current five-year average retention for 30% of new teachers in their profession. While recruitment and retention have been a top focus for Hinds, unfortunately his hopes for combatting teacher workload so far seem to have achieved little.
Blandford’s hope for change focused on destination: what happens in the community and how a community is built. For us all to consider what social mobility truly means and work together to make schools the best place to be for students every day of the year were Blandford’s concluding hopes.
Unfortunately, while the panelists of each discussion made a conscious effort to address the audience’s questions and concerns, the audience showed frustration at what they considered to be the lack of effective answers to these crucial issues. Tom Goldman regretfully stating that “until we know the spending outcome, we cannot make any certainties” was a particularly sore point for many delegates.
These debates suggest that the bleak future schools are facing as a result of the highlighted problem areas is set to worsen rather than improve. However, the continuous dedication by the vast majority of those involved to improving the educational landscape for students provides a glimmer of hope.