This was first posted on the Labour Teachers blog site.
Keven Bartle is the Headteacher of Canons High School in Edgware, NW London, which is a Teaching School as part of the Canons Park Alliance. He is lifelong Labour supporter from one of the few remaining bastions of Labour support, the North East. He tweets as @kevbartle, blogs at dailygenius.wordpress.com and does so in very much a personal capacity.
A Proposition: Reposition the Supposition of Opposition?
When I signed up to blog for Labour Teachers, I did so with a sense of cautious optimism that I’d be writing my first post under a Labour-led government. Such is not the case, but it’s a testament to the nature of recent years that neither my heart nor my head is surprised at the situation we face. In truth, as a Labour (Head)Teacher the real surprise is that, after five years of coalition government, I was rather hoping that the LibDems might have been a key player in such an administration. The reason? The fact that they were the only ones proposing to fund education in line with both inflation and the increased numbers of students entering the school system.
You see, the real choice that faced us as educators in May 2015 was not about curriculum, assessment, inspection or even Nicky Morgan’s shallow conception of wellbeing, but the perfect storm that lies ahead in terms of funding and its impact on an increasingly fragmented school system. For four years now most schools have seen a 1.5% decrease in funding that is masking brutal challenges for the years ahead. I say ‘masking’ because, in reality, the fact that it is only a 1.5% decrease has been courtesy of a ‘minimum funding guarantee’ payback from government to offset far bigger pupil-led funding cuts. The MFG has a far from certain future: it isn’t guaranteed for long, and if it goes…..! The 1.5% reduction is also ‘masking’ huge increases in expenditure, thanks to increased employer contributions to pensions (that will have no impact on the pensions teachers receive) and national insurance (that will have no impact on the safety net of social security in the face of £12 billion of cuts).
Given that 80% of a school’s guaranteed income is spent on staff salaries, there isn’t a huge amount of fat to slice away before we hit muscle, sinew and bone. Without a push from a strong opposition to fund schools properly, there are only limited ways in which a Headteacher can manage their budgets and maintain their schools as ‘going concerns’. Expect to see, this parliament, more schools increasing contact time, increasing class sizes, making redundancies and squeezing staff pay. It is a tsunami that the Canute of government-sponsored wellbeing initiatives will be powerless to stop crashing on the shores of this wonderful profession. Strong schools will get stronger and the weakest will go to the wall. “Doing more with less” is a flannel that can only be wrung out so far.
Added into this mix is a looming, impending or even actual recruitment crisis caused, in parts, by the seemingly failing experiment of School Direct, the wrecking ball approach to national terms and conditions of employment for teachers and the unravelling of the safety net of local authority responsibility for school effectiveness and place planning. A perfect storm of potentially divisive competition and conflict indeed.
So what of Labour? Where next for the party of working people and public services? For the party I love, I have only one piece of advice, to be a credible opposition: abandon the ‘supposition of opposition’ that says we need to insipidly ride the ‘election cycle’, keeping our powder dry and shouting from the sidelines for four out of five years before beginning to form policy as the 2020 election approaches. It did us no good and I fear that another navel-gazing, drawn-out leadership contest is a sign that ‘more of the same’ is on the way.
Instead we need to get quickly to the task of working out (with the profession and those who have most at stake in education) what a future Labour government will do for education that is rooted in our core values. We need to invert the ‘supposition of opposition’ and spend four out of those five years setting light to our powder and shouting from the centre, most importantly about how to stabilise funding of schools, recruit enough teachers, effectively provide places in areas of need and re-establish nationally coherent terms and conditions of employment. If we do not, I have great fears for what will be left of the education system by 2020.