Last year, thousands of headteachers across England wrote a letter to parents to warn that there is “simply not enough money in the system” to fund schools properly, as their costs continue to rise and budgets come under severe pressure.
The letter from more than 4,000 heads told around a million families that the government’s then new national funding formula would still mean that their children face an unfair “postcode lottery”, with some schools able to afford class sizes of 20 but similar schools in other regions forced to have classes of 35 pupils.
The head teachers said that the proposed national funding formula will do little to solve the funding crisis affecting many state schools.
Now, campaigners are concerned that the government wants to ‘gag’ teachers in England over the issue of diminishing funding and resources in schools.
A revision was made in September to the Department for Education’s (DfE)’s document entitled Staffing and employment advice for schools– billed as departmental advice for school leaders, governing bodies and local authorities – which contained a new paragraph with a blunt statement in a staff management section.
It states: “All staff have a responsibility to ensure that they act appropriately in terms of their behaviour, the views they express (in particular political views) and the use of school resources at all times, and should not use school resources for party political purposes.”
The warning, which was first reported by Schools Week, comes after campaigns by school leaders over budget cuts that have irked the government, and high-profile union activity targeting parents during the previous general election campaign, which may have cost the Conservative party votes.
However, headteachers and teaching unions have said they will defy any attempts by the DfE to block legitimate criticism, following the warning to teachers in England against expressing “political views”.
A DfE spokesperson said: “Headteachers have long had a legal responsibility to provide a balanced presentation of opposing views when teaching political or controversial subjects.
“This update simply brings this guidance in line with the law, which makes clear that headteachers and local authorities must not promote partisan political views in school.”
However, Jules White, a headteacher behind the Worth Less? national group of school leaders that has organised critical letters on funding, said: “If expressing political views is about biased and ill-judged grandstanding by heads and teachers, then I fully support the DfE’s views.
“If, on the other hand, the DfE wishes headteachers to be gagged as they simply tell the truth about the financial and teacher supply crisis that our schools are facing then this is unacceptable.
“Worth Less? always uses independent evidence from sources such as the IFS and DfE data itself to support the legitimate concerns it raises with parents and the public. Our claims are never disputed, but frequently ignored.
“I will continue to lead our campaign and speak out in a reasonable and considered manner on behalf of colleagues and the children and families that we serve.”
Last year, Worth Less? organised 5,000 headteachers to lobby the government, while White and his colleagues oversaw a letter sent to an estimated 2.5 million households via pupils from thousands of state schools.
Geoff Barton, a former headteacher who is now general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, derided the DfE’s advice and suggested it would be unlikely to deter teachers from campaigning.
“It is perfectly reasonable for school leaders and teachers to be able to articulate their concerns … and it is clearly in the public interest for them to have a voice. You cannot disenfranchise 450,000 teachers from talking about education,” he said.
Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary, said: “The Tories are trying to ban teachers from whistleblowing when schools cuts bite into our children’s education. They may hope to silence teachers, but they can’t get away from the fact that they will have cut £3bn from school budgets by 2020.
“If the government wants to know why teachers are publicly criticising them, they need only look at their own record of broken promises. They even cancelled their ‘guarantee’ that every school would receive a cash increase.”
The non partisan Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) says that since 2009, school spending per pupil in England has fallen by about 8% in real terms, with a smaller fall in Wales of about 5%.
While total school spending has risen in England by about 1% in real terms over this period, a 10% rise in pupil numbers means that the only slightly increased resources are now rather more thinly spread.
Damian Hinds had only been education secretary for a month when Labour shadow secretary, Angela Rayner, reported him to the UK Statistics Authority for making the incorrect claim that “real-terms funding per pupil is increasing across the system”. The ‘mistake’ was corrected, and six months into the job, Hinds says he recognised not only that school budgets are being cut, but that such cuts are unsustainable and destructive.
Yet despite Hinds’ claim that he has grasped some of the problems facing schools, he has offered no solution.
In September, Hinds was forced to apologise to the families affected by the Whitehaven Academy scandal, and pledged to “do everything we can to stop it happening again”. Hinds said images of the Cumbria school’s squalid facilities shown in a recent BBC Panorama investigation were “very striking”, and said he was “sorry” for everyone affected.
The secondary school has been at the centre of a row over the way the private company Bright Tribe runs its schools in the north of England for years, but matters came to a head last autumn when flooding damaged already “dilapidated” buildings on the school site, and the chain announced it was walking away.
It has since emerged that the DfE was warned of problems as far back as 2015, but had taken no action. The governmenthad approved the academy initiative. Bright Tribe had taken the money intended for repairs to the school, and then not carried out the work.
Michael Dwan, who set up Bright Tribe and had previously made a fortune of over a hundred million pounds from similar arrangements in NHS provision, said “I am not in control of the trusts and never have been.”
Hinds told Schools Week: “I am sorry for the families involved with Whitehaven, of course I am, and as secretary of state for education, ultimately responsibility for the school system sits with me, and particularly the academy part of the school system, then especially so.”
“I want to make sure that we learn from what happened, and make sure that we do everything we can to stop it happening again.”
The controversial Bright Tribe academy trust confirmed in September that the final six of the ten schools it ran will be ‘re-brokered’,
The wind-up of the trust follows a turbulent year which saw its founder, property tycoon Michael Dwan, resign last September. New trustees, installed by the government, are now investigating allegations of misuse of public money.
The Bright Tribe founder Michael Dwan withdrew his support from the ailing trust amid frustrations over government scrutiny and concerns that his ‘efforts had gone unrecognised’, copies of letters and emails obtained by Schools Week revealed in July.
The new bosses, who include two school leaders that specialise in the winding up of failing trusts, are investigating allegations that Bright Tribe made repeated false claims for building and maintenance grants at Whitehaven Academy in Cumbria, the first school to be given up by the private trust.
The school is now in limbo, it does not have the option to return to local authority control. It cannot make long-term planning decisions, hire new permanent members of staff or organise pay rises. The government has offered no solution, struggling to find a new chain willing and able to take on the school, which is in a precarious financial position.
By the end of 2017, 64 academy status schools were waiting to find a new sponsor after being abandoned by, or relinquished by their managing trust. Using average enrolments of 279 pupils for state primary schools and 946 for state secondary schools this would mean over 40,000 students are adversely affected.
Legitimate criticism of government policies that have negative consequences on children, public sector staff and the tax paying public isn’t ‘expressing political views’; it is an absolute necessity for a functioning democracy.
A government that labels valid concerns ‘political views’ is an oppressive, authoritarian, gaslighting one.
You can watch the Panorama documentary, Profits before Pupils? The Academies Scandal, here.
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