When you make the decision to work in education, you become a guardian of dreams.
If that sounds grand, then its meant to. My school educates secondary age pupils with special needs. Some have autistic spectrum disorders or severe learning difficulties.
All these students, and their families, have dreams. It is our job to help them achieve these dreams.
Two of my students have recently started university. When they joined the school at 11, this was an unimaginable goal.
Dreaming is one thing. Practicalities are another. It’s important to remember that educating young people with special needs is a long game, where progress will often feel moderate or remote, where backward steps are common and where a lack of progress is often daunting.
And yet, it’s possible to achieve great things in the end.
If you work in a special educational needs school like mine, dogged determination is a necessity. You can never give up. You have to be relentless. These qualities are essential if you are going to make a difference for the pupils in your care. When they do make a breakthrough there’s an almost euphoric sense of achievement. Consequently, it’s the most rewarding work I have ever known.
Sadly, this doggedness in the classroom doesn’t leave a lot of emotional and professional energy left for the other fight that is increasingly common for all schools. More and more now I find it is necessary to fight the system. All too often, the successes of my students happen despite the system, not because of it. And that can’t be right.
But the doggedness that we demonstrate is being put to good use this Friday. Along with a 1,000 colleagues from all over the UK, I’m heading to Downing Street, to campaign on behalf of the children we serve, because we’re sick of being told that there’s more money in education than ever before, when what we see with our own eyes every day proves that it’s just not enough.
We are seeing schools - both maintained and academies that are seeing their funds depleted, dipping into their reserves, and having to send out begging letters to parents. This is not through choice, this is because there is no alternative.
Earlier this year, figures showed the number of secondary schools in England running at a loss had nearly trebled in four years. The study, published by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) in March, said the number of local council-run secondary schools in deficit dropped from 14.3% in 2010/11 to 8.8% in 2013/14, but between 2013/14 and 2016/17, the numbers in deficit nearly trebled to 26.1%. In July, the Institute for Fiscal Studies said total school spending per pupil fell around 8% in real terms in England between 2009/10 and 2017/18.
We can trade statistics with the Government forever and a day, but those teachers on the front line can identify a reduction in the number of teachers, in the number of teaching assistants, in the number of support staff over the last year.
My students have lots of complex additional needs and severe medical conditions. But they cannot get all the support to which they are entitled. Let me give you an example. In the past, I could rely on the support of the school nursing service. They could be prevailed upon to take care of the medical needs of my students, whilst my staff took care of their educational needs. In my local authority, the school nursing service has been virtually disbanded. This has created unacceptable pressure on my staff and is severely limiting the ambitions we have for pupils.
Because of the cuts, the thresholds for care are getting higher and higher, making it harder and harder for us to access the health and care support that are essential. Where we could once have relied on the local authority for things like speech and language or occupational therapy, now we must provide this ourselves, with no extra funding. And costs for this support are rising all the time.
Heartbreakingly, I find myself having more and more conversations with my students’ families about the difficult decisions we are having to make about the provision we offer. Just as it is for school leaders and their teams, the emotional and professional energy that parents and carers require, is immense. We could all do without having to spend such a lot of that capital on fighting the system. Sometimes you fight the system together. On other occasions, it can drive a wedge between you and your families. And the only people who lose out then are the children.
It does come down to money in the end. Costs are rising faster than funding. Provision and support are being cut. You can do anything if you have the money. You cannot do anything without it.
We will always dream as big as we dare for our students. They are ambitious young people. Their families are ambitious for them. What we need is for the government to show some leadership and fund the essential work all schools do sufficiently.
One teacher said to me that if we go to London on Friday and get the Treasury to change its funding policy, he reckons that will be the best day’s work he’s ever done. That’s the stage we’re at.
Marijke Miles is headteacher at Baycroft School in Hampshire, and one of 1,000 headteachers marching to protest school funding cuts ahead of Conservative Party conference