We are at a point in education where we need the help of politicians more than ever. In less than a year we have been challenged through cuts in the SEND band funding, a budget formula that is causing many schools to nose dive into a deficit, a recruitment and retention crisis fuelled by ramped up expectations against a curriculum that nobody knows how to assess, and an education bill that favours illogical and ideological change over common sense and reason.
Any one of these changes across one academic year would have been challenging enough, but altogether? Do you remember the last few seconds just before you lost at space invaders? When the multitude of alien ships, after growing relentlessly in number, finally overpowered you, and slowly but surely lowered themselves onto your head, crushing you, and turning you into a mashed up heap of broken bones, fluids and brain-jam? That’s a bit similar to what leading a school has felt like in the last few months.
Unlike the ineffectual laser cannon of space invaders however, we schools are not just trying to overcome the challenges that face us; we are also trying to deliver a service. And our customers have great expectations. The age of Mumsnet has given rise to a level of ‘parent-voice’ that is unprecedented in the history of schooling. So much so that politicians have succumbed to drafting education policy that would suggest courting the ‘parent pound’ is their top priority. Parents have been told time and time again that they have the right to demand, not only the best, not just more, but whatever they feel entitled to.
In recent years, schools have bent over backwards to accommodate parents’ wishes and demands. If anything is not deemed to fit in with parents’ expectation, it is fair game to be debated online, petitioned in the playground and complained about to Ofsted. You can’t blame the parents. They have the priority of their child at the forefront of their minds. So, of course, do we. It’s just that we happen to have everyone else’s kid to think about too and that’s what causes the problem. The education profession has been systematically de-professionalised by politicians whose default move, when confronted with a ‘this isn’t good enough’ scenario, is to simply put it out on twitter that ‘schools will have to make it better’. Schools are now expected to not only educate children but to solve the ills of society because that’s what every parent wants.
Well, if schools are going to survive all the budget cuts and the raised expectations in standards of reading, writing and maths, the politicians are going to have to give us something back. They will need to make it clear that schools exist purely to educate children. If they intend to strip back our funding and ramp up stringent accountability measures they will need to better manage parents’ expectations, as we will no longer have the capacity to do everything.
Parents will have to understand that we can do it all no longer. It’s a sad truth but, as schools begin to run themselves using the minimum number of teachers required, society is going to have accept it. Your child can’t swim? Take them swimming on Saturday. Your child was bullied online last night? Close their account. You think your child isn’t being stretched by the mastery curriculum? Go and hire a personal tutor. Your child has behavioural and emotional issues? Take them to a psychiatrist.
There will need to be a national understanding that schools that say ‘no’ are not cruel and uncaring institutions shirking their responsibilities as they hot-house children for exams. Schools that say ‘no’ will simply be prioritising in order to fulfil a statutory duty to raise standards in education. They’re not being difficult. It is not unacceptable. You can’t complain. They are just trying to do a job with limited resources. It isn’t a perfect model and it’s not one any educationalist would choose (well maybe a neo-post-punk-prog-rock-traditionalist would) but it’s the one that we’ve got and we need to make the best of it.
This is not a conversation I want to have with parents. It is not the way I’d choose to run a school. But the uncomfortable truth is, as good as we are, we can’t perform miracles.
If the government is serious about its white paper and its current valuation on the cost of running a school that meets the needs of individual children, then it better start flexing those opposable thumbs…because there’s going to be an army of parental space invaders rushing down to crush them and, trust me, they’re really good at winning.
If any parents at my school (and I know some of you will) read this particular post, please remember that I love you all, and will always try, as hard as I can, to meet the needs of your children whatever it takes. It’s just, well, it’s going to get harder and harder, so bear with me.