Meg Hillier, the Chair of Westminster’s powerful Public Accounts Committee has identified the Department for Education as one of her six ‘departments of concern.’
As school children and MPs count down the remaining days until their summer holidays, the PAC annual summary of its work makes for a fairly grim end of term report for the government.
Much of the PAC’s thinking echoes the conclusions already expressed by NAHT. Indeed, they quote a recent survey of ours which revealed that as many as one in 20 schools are already running on reduced hours to cope with cuts to their finances.
Our Breaking Point survey of school budgets showed that 21% were in deficit for 2017/18; a 13 percentage-point increase since 2015. 65% of school leaders ‘strongly agreed’ that cut backs had already had a negative impact on the performance of their school. And 81% were expecting an untenable deficit at some point soon.
The amount of money the government is prepared to spend on children is still the issue that won’t go away.
In the Commons at the beginning of the week during an Estimates Day Debate on school funding, Preet Kaur Gill, the Labour MP for Edgbaston, quoted a line that I have used many times recently, saying: “The government acknowledges that schools are being asked to do more than ever before. They also accept that costs are rising. But they remain unwilling to meet these increased expectations and costs with sufficient funding.”
Rightly, the PAC has the DfE on its naughty list, but the Treasury’s refusal to reverse the cuts schools have experienced since 2015 should also mark them out as a department for concern.
Since 2010, the school landscape has changed dramatically. There are now many more types of schools and colleges than ever, and Meg Hillier’s report also reflects the concerns of school leaders about the how this balkanised system is overseen, inspected and governed.
A fortnight ago NAHT gave evidence to the PAC as it looked into the work of the schools’ inspectorate, Ofsted. As we said in that session, accountability systems should always be tested against their ability to deliver improvement, and in 2018 there is now much less evidence that the inspectorate is having a positive impact than it did when it was first formed.
A lack of inspectors and funding means that Ofsted has become reliant on the short, one-day inspection model. One recently trained Ofsted Inspector reflected that short inspection involves ‘a near impossible task to get through the work that was needed,’ meaning that we have good inspectors attempting to achieve the impossible in schools.
NAHT has set up an independent commission to take a fresh look at how we hold schools to account. We hope this will be a first step towards a future where school leaders don’t have to fear that doing the right thing for their pupils might be the wrong thing in the eyes of inspectors. The findings will be published in September.
So, whilst there’s concern from MPs about how the government does its job, school leaders and their teams are still doing theirs to the best of their ability. In their hands, the state education system that we all pay for is in safe hands. There are 24,316 state schools in England and in all but a very few cases, despite reduced funding, increased expectations and constant pressure, they are delivering a world class education. On a good day, teaching is still the best job in the world.
The end of term report for the dedicated people who teach your children is ‘keep up the good work’. I’d like to see the government trying to match that effort in the new academic year by funding schools properly, holding them to account fairly, and treating their staff respectfully.
At the moment, sadly, the end of term verdict for the government is ‘must try harder’.