The headline is from the Greek historian Plutarch’s account of the battle of Asculum in Apulia (the heel of the boot in Italy) that gave us the phrase “pyrrhic victory”, the kind of victory won at such cost to life, limb and friendship, that you almost wish you’d lost.
I can’t help that the current government of the day is looking at a very good deal of its national policies and wondering a little as Laurel might ask of Hardy “Well , here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!” I could be referring to military matters, such as the new Aircraft carriers that don’t have sailors, or destroyers whose engines don’t work, or the Army more generally that simply can’t recruit to NHS matters, the Prison or Police Service or indeed to Social Care almost anywhere – we do seem have almost insoluble problems.
As you might guess, I am choosing to write about the government’s decisions over the last 2 decades to provide for schools the financial independence so they can get on and manage their affairs. When I entered the profession in the mid 1970s, local authorities were just beginning to give schools the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of local financial management of their budget and these became enshrined across the country from 1988. You can read more of the historical perspectives around these choices here in a National College of Teaching and Leadership module, and it makes an easy read.
Put simply, over the last 30 years the industry has become fragmented in a myriad of small business units (over 30,000), and some have learned how to manage their affairs really well. Plenty have struggled to make the most of being a business as well as an education provider, and those schools in the main tend to be in more challenging areas where greater resources are needed and where the supply of willing graduate labour to work is hard to find.
It’s no secret that London has done really well, recovering from an incredibly low point it hit in the late 1990s. Back in 2003, the then Secretary of State, Estelle Morris launched the London Challenge, led by its first Schools Commissioner, Sir Tim Brighouse, himself fresh from his successes in England’s second city, Birmingham. I quote from an excellent article from the 2013 Guardian Newspaper:
” The London Challenge had a simple moral imperative: to have every young person in London receive a good, or better, education. Along with additional funding, a minister with specific responsibility for London schools was appointed. These two factors, supported by a single policy objective and a first-class team of officials in the Department for Education, gave the project a head start. The credibility of, and respect for, Tim Brighouse were crucial in getting local authorities, schools and teachers to believe in the project’s goal, and to secure their support. Their involvement in shaping the project ensured it was seen not as yet another top-down initiative but as one that included the ideas of key players.
The key components of the London Challenge were a close focus on raising the quality of school leadership and on the quality of teaching and learning. This focus was achieved through a leadership training programme for existing and aspirant leaders, and professional development and support for teachers seeking to improve their teaching. Another important part of the London Challenge was the detailed use of data, not only about the school overall but about the performance of individual subject departments and of students from ethnic groups. The data was used to create “families” of schools with common characteristics. This enabled the London Challenge advisers to make clear to schools that their performance could not be defended on the grounds of being different in some way from every other school: there was no hiding place.”
On a personal perspective, I learned a lot from Tim Brighouse’s work, probably most specifically about bis ‘Butterfly effect‘ whereby High Impact/Low Effort interventions
could be made in schools. Here’s Sir Tim on his small creatures: “My favourite sport – collecting ‘butterflies’ of good school practice – derives from chaos theory which is best illustrated by an example: that if sufficient butterflies whirr their wings in the Amazonian rain forests, then it can set off a chain of climate change that eventually can cause a tornado in the United States.”
We bought multiple copies of his small book (2006) on School Improvement, Essential Pieces: The jigsaw of a successful school and and shared them around our leadership group. 11 years later, we have much to thank Sir Tim for at Claires Court, as you’ll recognise from this small ‘piece’ from his puzzle, in which he identified the need to be communicative, collaborative and creative!
From the evidence from the London Challenge, the concept developed of Multi-Academy Trusts, which could build families of schools sharing the same kinds of pupils and characteristics, supporting each other , with direct challenge spin-offs to Manchester and the Black Country. In truth, one of the major reasons why the London Challenge was so successful is the extra heavy funding London schools received in order to meet the genuine ‘challenges’ Sir Tim and his team discovered. Long past the Challenge’s closure in 2011, London has continued to enjoy that much heavier spending, and it is now the single most successful city in the land.
And now comes the crunch: schools across the country, be they in local authority hands or academy ownership have adopted many of these really successful ideas pioneered in London’s schools, though have not received much of the additional funding needed to ensure the programmes are full embedded and developed. In parts of the country, such as those very near me in Wokingham and West Berkshire, funding has barely moved, so headteachers have had to be particularly creative to meet the growth in activity needed to truly make their schools successful.
From 2010 austerity struck, though it was said that education was to be protected. In some ways it was, but the growing numbers of pupils entering primary schools are now moving into secondary, so schools have been required to do more with the same money. In 2016, schools saw an increase in their employer contributions to both NI and pensions, and in 2017, tax rises in rates and apprenticeship charges add to the costs. So the net revenue available to schools is shrinking, at a time when an ageing work force is retiring more rapidly, recent entrants are staying for a shorter time (less than 5 years, and new recruitment has been well under target for years.
And finally, schools are now facing a readjustment of the monies they receive for each pupil. It is said that more than 50% of schools are going to gain a little or stay static, but in that large minority of schools, revenue is going to shrink, and for London schools, really by quite a lot. We now have the perfect scenario, as seen in BCE279: the schools are set facing the government, much as King Pyrrhus of Epirus did against Consul Publius Decius Mus and his Roman army back in 279 BC at the battle of Asculum in Apulia. Whoever wins this titanic struggle of provision against costs, there will be no victory worth celebrating. For schools to cut back their staffing so they have a working budget for the next 3 years, they will have to cut all the programmes and increased staffing levels needed to ensure the provision identified by the London Challenge remains secure. This is why 1 local headteacher, Mary Sandell of The Forest School resigned so publicly last month, and why others are going quietly into retirement or relocation for similar reasons. The growth in new schools and expansion in existing schools is also badly affected by the sheer lack of teachers available in the locality. As with Pyrrhus, the state sector finds its friends are being cut down to the left and the right, is shorn of new troops to provide replacement and of resources to re-equip. And from central command it hears some very odd and conflicting messages; one that what the country needs are new grammar schools, the other that schools can employ unqualified teachers to fill the roles needed in schools.
People unqualified for the role are no more fit to teach than they are to work in hospitals or prisons, to detect crime or manage dementia, to bear arms in the military or to sail aircraft carriers. Government can call the shots as much as it likes, but they need to be carefully crafted and well thought out. If not, it may indeed win the perceived battle its sees to conquer our financial crisis, but it will emerge when it declares its victory over austerity without the well-educated workforce we need to populate our industries, public or private on which we place our trust to provide for our defence, our health, our care and safety, or the future education of our children.