As we begin 2023, here are my top 5 areas for urgent attention. I apologise to secondary/FE colleagues as I’m sure there are pressing issues in your phases too, but I’m going with those where I feel most at home.
If we are to reduce inequalities, we need fundamental change in the value we give to those working in the most challenging areas of the country. Nothing less that a radical re-assessment about what is most important for our children.
Whilst the government has a crucial role in reform, there is a responsibility on all of us to make changes too. It’s too easy to shrug our shoulders and lament how the country has gone to the dogs. We can, and must, be optimistic.
Here we go.
In days gone by, a child was reared by a family network. In many cases, there was a wider support network bringing up a child. This exists far less now, and instead parenting is a struggle for many, if not most. This is a statement of fact, not a pejorative accusation.
Too often, children have to listen to shouting and swearing as parents struggle to control emotions. Children spend too much time on a console or iPad in protracted periods of isolation. There is less connection with the wider community or neighbourhood, and they experience little time outside to develop physical health. As a result, many pupils struggle to listen, to concentrate, to communicate. Lack of exercise and poor diet is commonplace. Some come to our 2-year old provision still in nappies, unable to talk, their development more consistent with a child of 6 months.
Thanks to the work of staff, whether parental link workers, nursery assistants, teachers and Children’s Centre workers, many of the children develop to behave remarkably well in school, and those younger pupils develop core skills so that they make very quick progress. But this is work that is physically and mentally draining; it saps resources that just aren’t there. Once again, it disproportionately hits those schools with a greater number of parents who struggle. Support for the parents comes before the education of the child.
Admittedly, schools in areas of greater disadvantage may receive extra money through pupil premium funding, but it is but a drop in the ocean when given the obstacles that the same schools face.
At the same time, an individualistic culture has become endemic across society, meaning many parents think nothing of demanding all and everything from schools, insisting it should make up for any obstacles that are put in their way, or for the impact of other pupils and families. ‘I’m sorry, Sir, but my child comes first,’ is a popular refrain. Schools respond to this with remarkable equanimity, but with increasing weariness.
Parents think nothing now of sub-contracting decisions to their children, many as young as 6 or 7 years old. What to wear, what to eat, when to go to bed, when to get a phone – all this has a knock-on effect on schooling, behaviour and health.
Schools need to be given the resources or the wider support to deal with the problems presented by parenting in the 2020s. I hesitate to use the term ‘bad parenting’. I rather view this as parents who struggle or who don’t know any different. Once supported, as we have seen in our Children’s Centre, we can improve things. But it’s hugely challenging and I feel this work goes unnoticed. It needs correcting and promoting, because to ignore it carries huge consequences for our society.
- Early Years
This Autumn, we learnt of the Government’s desire to introduce Family Centres across the country, targeted most at areas of greater deprivation. I have to say that this was a little insulting to us, as (using some of our own money) the Anfield Children’s Centre stayed open throughout the last decade when most locked their doors and ceased to function, starved of funding since 2010.
Investment in Early Years is not just crucial, it’s existential if we are to prevent the deepening of inequalities. In my opinion, schools have the ambition and expertise to develop high-quality programmes of support for children in these first few years of life, including with parenting as mentioned above. This holistic, sustainable approach is far more effective than time-limited, local government-led ‘strategies’ that promise much but deliver little. And yet Nursery schools are pitifully underfunded and, once again, there is little incentive for good, community-based schools to take on the leadership of Children’s Centres, or in their new iteration, Family Centres.
I know that Ofsted have reported back to the Government on how serious the problem is, accelerated by the pandemic. Multi-agency support around the most disadvantaged families has collapsed, and the country is now seeing thousands of young children who need heightened levels of intervention before they even step inside a classroom.
Schools should not be left as the crisis centres, dealing with all the fallout of this collapse. However, they could be the answer, running Family Centres for their community. Give them the funding, and the value for money will turn out to be far greater than the current patchwork of time-limited interventions.
One final point here. This government, and the previous administrations going back to 2010, have rightly paid great attention to phonics and early reading. However, it has now become something of a cult, with sizeable sums of money going into schools via English hubs to correct something that is not really a problem anymore. The vast majority of schools know how to teach phonics. The problem now is teaching phonics to children who have deep problems with health, who can’t listen, who struggle to talk, as well as the rapid number of pupils with special educational needs. To believe that schools such as ours have neat cohorts of homogenous groups, all perfectly pre-disposed to learning in this way, is to bury our collective heads in the sand.
There is a nationwide consensus that investment in the first 1000 days of a child’s life is the biggest factor to reducing inequalities. We are not seeing this on the ground, quite the contrary.
And this leads me to the next point – the perverse consequences of the current accountability system.
Imagine how this feels: you work tirelessly to improve a 2-year-old’s speech, toileting, behaviour, their attention, you work with the child’s parents to improve sleep, diet and socialisation. By the end of Reception, the child is better able to learn and access a more formalised curriculum in Year1. But the process of learning to read is taking longer as a result, compounded by the number of other pupils with similar barriers.
The pupils therefore pass their Phonics check at the end of Year 2, instead of Year 1. But it’s too late, as already the school has been named and shamed in league tables set at the end of Year 1. All that intense work is viewed as a failure.
The same thing happens at Year 6, where children with severe learning difficulties are included within league tables, sending schools like ours tumbling down the league table. Each year we have a dozen children with Education and Health Care Plans who count in these crude judgements on a school’s effectiveness. What kind of incentive is this?
It’s a crushing disincentive. The current system of league tables is an active agent of inequality. It incentivises schools to tell parents that ‘your child’s needs cannot be met here, but the school down the road is brilliant at SEND – try there’. This creates a two-tier system, exacerbated by the funding inequalities. Schools are trumpeted in ‘best UK schools’ lists without contributing to any work on SEND, early years or family support. This cannot be fair.
The system of league tables is archaic and crude. It needs either a complete overhaul to incentivise those schools with higher proportions of SEND and FSM, or it needs consigning to the bin.
- Special Education Needs
Something is happening. For whatever reason, or more likely reasons, we are noticing more and more children with acute needs. I don’t mean pupils who are cognitively below average, or pupils who find it difficult to behave. No, we are talking children who are non-verbal, unable to socialise, prone to emotional, violent outbursts, almost impossible to include in a mainstream classroom. This is sometimes coupled with involvement with social services, or safeguarding concerns, or other barriers to development e.g. poverty.
We are proud that our school is one of a number across the country that are ‘hybrid’ schools – schools with so many pupils with SEND that they could operate as a special school in their own right. We accept our role in providing the best we can for some of the most vulnerable children in the city.
But not all do. At a time when there are more children than ever who need specialist intervention at primary school, there are too few schools equipped or incentivised to do this. Why?
Firstly, the funding system is broken and penalises schools financially for admitting high numbers of pupils with EHCPs. Secondly, as I argue above, it places much greater pressure on the school to fulfil accountability measures. To put it crudely, SEND pupils are bad for business.
This is cruel and callous, and undermines the work of the school as well as diminishing the value inherent in these wonderful pupils. The government needs to act urgently. I would look further into the concept of hybrid schools – I think it is the way forward. But they need to be incentivised.
It is an uncontested statistic that attendance data is poorer in areas of greater socio-economic disadvantage, particularly where there is a high percentage of White British demographic. Since the pandemic, we have noticed an acceleration in how health inequalities affect attendance. A combination of poverty (poverty of spirit, as much as financial poverty), poor diet and parental perception of risk has led to increases in non-attendance at school.
Yes, on paper, schools can use some of the pupil premium money to target resources to overcome these barriers, but most of this money is taken up with a whole range of other front-line costs. There simply isn’t the support needed to make these transformational changes to health – both physical and mental. It’s a constant battle and is such a drain on resources.
Our school sits in the 10th most deprived ward in the country, so unsurprisingly some of our families fall into this category of need.
A huge amount of extra work is expended by exhausted schools for marginal gains. This work rises exponentially in line with those schools in areas of greater deprivation. And reduced rates are widening inequalities, as community health deteriorates rapidly.
For me, the education system urgently needs support from elsewhere to address pupil attendance. It cannot police the issue effectively, nor triage the increasing amount of health problems. And guess what? It hits those areas of the country with the greatest disadvantage putting greater pressure on schools in these areas, not to mention that they are named and shamed as somehow this is their fault.
So there are my five big areas.
I believe that there is one significant incentive for the DfE to move in the direction I outline above, and that is recruitment. We need the brightest and the best working in schools located in areas of greatest disadvantage, as this is what ultimately will reduce inequalities. The problems I cite above mean that the same brightest and best prefer to work elsewhere, or to leave teaching altogether.
If we don’t act soon, we risk cutting off those most disadvantaged to such an extent that it is almost impossible to recover, if we haven’t already done so. The consequences for our future society are grave. Attempts to ‘narrow the gap’ have largely failed apart for the significant numbers of pupils who have migrated to the UK over the last two or three decades – often materially poor, but often fiercely ambitious. For the white-British communities, particularly living in post-industrial towns and cities, it is a very different story.
I hope and pray that this year we can move in the right direction, otherwise our current problems will be that much bigger when we start 2024.