State schools

“Financing public schools at the level of private schools”: what kind of upgrading do school leaders want? | Schools

Headteachers John Barnes and Andrew O’Neill have both a lot and a little in common. Both are successful leaders struggling with the impact of the pandemic as well as the usual challenges facing schools in the 21st century.

But Barnes runs a small trust, the Seaton Valley Federation, in the heart of Blyth Valley, Northumberland, one of the country’s most marginal ‘red wall’ seats, at a time when the government is under enormous pressure to explain what his leveling up agenda means for long-serving Labor constituencies that switched to the Conservatives in 2019.

O’Neill, meanwhile, runs a secondary school in central London in a very deprived area in the heart of one of the country’s wealthiest boroughs. All Saints Catholic College in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has almost double the national average of pupils eligible for free school meals.

It is within walking distance of Grenfell Tower and some of Britain’s most expensive homes. The Kensington parliamentary constituency could also be described as England’s most marginal ‘blue wall’ seat, with a parliamentary majority of just 150, held by the Conservatives for most of the past 50 years.

But two years after the election that gave Boris Johnson an 80-seat majority on the back of a promise to level the playing field across the UK, the two leaders are unsure what leveling means for their schools.

A white papernow due in February, has been repeatedly delayed amid rumors the Treasury will not provide adequate funding to meet the expectations of voters who handed Boris Johnson victory.

Meanwhile, school funding has taken a hit over the past decade. According to Institute for Tax Studies, the 9% drop in real terms in spending per pupil constitutes a “major brake on the leveling up”. Reforms to the way money is distributed to schools, intended to make the system fairer, have been revealed to disproportionately benefit less disadvantaged schools.

Even without the pandemic learning loss, it would take 500 years, at current rates, to close the GCSE achievement gap between children from different backgrounds. Yet there has only been one upgrading policy for schools – a bonus for math and science teachers – and this has not yet been implemented.

“Upper Level is a beautiful sounding phrase,” says Barnes. “But where is the detail for education and more generally? I’ve never met a manager who doesn’t want his children to do their best and I’ve never seen a politician come and sit in my office and ask me what we need.

“Our schools are not particularly deprived, and I agree that free school meals are a good indicator of deprivation, but we have a lot of families ‘just about to manage’. They are excluded from additional funding and there needs to be a better conversation about these people. They need to see jobs and cultural opportunities in their communities, good mental health support, and they need to see someone who cares about them.

“Above all, if we want to level up, we need honesty about one thing. We need to fund public schools at the same level as private schools. I’m not against private schools but their quarterly fees are the equivalent of my annual funding per student. It’s unfair.”

Andrew O’Neill, principal of All Saints Catholic College in west London, has developed a website that analyzes government data on schools. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

At the other end of the country, O’Neill acknowledges that there is resentment towards schools in London, which receive more funding per pupil than schools elsewhere in the country and perform better than some regions who have been labeled as “left behind”.

Over the past year, he has developed a website, Headlightthat analyzes government data on schools, their funding, outcomes and local contexts, including index of income deprivation affecting children (IDACI).

“It’s a very complex question,” he says. “It is certainly not going to be solved by a political project that injects funds into certain areas to try to win votes. A few other vanity capital projects in the north aren’t going to bring significant change.

“One of the reasons I created the website was that the government puts data in many different places and I wanted to see it together so I could find schools like mine so I could make comparisons, as well as potential contacts to see how we could improve.

“There are areas of deep deprivation in many local communities. Parts of Kensington are more deprived than parts of Blyth Valley, but is it all about the money? Probably not. We are a school in the first IDACI decile, with 50% of pupils eligible for the pupil bonus, but our children see wealth and opportunity at their doorstep.

“We have a music teacher who teaches choral works in Latin. London schools likely have access to a more mobile pool of high-performing, well-educated staff. Short of defining what we mean by leveling up, how can we judge success? Is it income, is it opportunity, is it student outcomes?

“We need a deeper understanding of the issues to make the changes that will benefit all young people. For too long, education has been beholden to politicians delivering polished soundbites that tinker around the edges but fail to deliver the scale of transformation needed to deliver high-quality education across the country.

One aspect of the upgrade program that fascinates O’Neill is the plight of the conservative safe seats in which students seem to do less well than some of the heavily trailed “red wall” areas.

Dan Morrow leads the Dartmoor Multi Academy Trust in Torridge and West Devon, where former Attorney General Sir Geoffrey Cox, whose lucrative overseas legal practice was recently revealed, holds a majority of 25,000 votes.

Morrow is convinced that political expediency can mask the need to invest more in areas like his. “Trying to level areas such as the former ‘red wall’ means traditionally conservative areas can be overlooked, despite the clear case for more support,” he says.

“I understand that there are post-industrial cities that need investment. I have worked in inner city schools across the country. But rural poverty remains a major problem and the same underlying problems exist here; huge disparities between rich and poor, lack of affordable housing and employment opportunities, outdated transport links, which make opportunities more difficult for young people, and the sense of isolation that then stems from rural disadvantage .

“Just because it’s set in a constituency that also has wealthy semi-aristocratic landowners and stunning scenery doesn’t mean the problem is any less pronounced for young people. If the government wants to take leveling seriously – and make it clear that it is not just a political gain – then it needs to put more emphasis on rural poverty.

Morrow would like to see closer integration of health, social care and education for young people. “Essentially, the disparity in thresholds and supply exacerbates inequalities, and circumstances of birth remain too rooted in a sense of inevitable fate,” he says.

Anita Bath, Executive Director of the Bishop Bewick Catholic Education Trust, oversees schools in three local authorities in the North East of England, including rural, inner city Labor and now Conservative areas. She is also adamant that political borders should not be relevant.

“More money is always welcome as it brings freedom, but there are structural issues that need to be rethought rather than plastered over. Where are the big thinkers in education? she says. “We know that by the time children enter primary school, they may be 18 months behind their peers.We need to rethink the whole primary sector and close the gap at this point.

A recent survey suggested that if there were a general election now, the Tories would lose all but three of their ‘red wall’ seats, so the challenge facing ministers is intense. A education white paperthe first since 2016, was also promised this year, but Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, who produced his change projectbelieves that there are a series of pressing problems.

“Children with special educational needs clearly need more support. Post-16 education has been treated by the government as the poor relation with the biggest funding cuts of any sector of the education system over the past decade,” he says. “And schools in England need £11.4billion in repairs, according to the Department for Education’s own figures.

“You can’t level up without tackling these issues. Then there’s the long-standing and intractable problem of a large gap in educational achievement between disadvantaged young people and other children, and the fact that in Normally around a third of pupils leave secondary education with less than Year 4 in GCSE English and Maths.

He adds: “If going upmarket means anything, we have to do better for these young people. Having sufficient funding is an important factor, but there are others as well. The curriculum and qualifications don’t work for them.

“If the government succeeds, with clarity and ambition, this could be a watershed moment. What it cannot be is more or less the same thing.

Additional data used for this article can be found here.