Schools: Better together in these uncertain times

Published on 27 January 2017

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We have just left the Chinese Year of the Monkey, that unpredictable joker of the animal world and a fitting symbol to represent the turmoil education faced during it.

And what a twelve months it was. Leaving aside the sudden promise of new grammar schools, the sector rode a rollercoaster of political interference, policy announcements and reversals, and key personnel departures. It was certainly never dull.

With 2017 shaping up to be a similar ride amid further pressures as budgets tighten, staff shortages bite and political expectations grow and shift, how should schools react?

The short answer is: together. Sir David Carter, the new National Schools Commissioner, has sensibly suggested that banding as multi-academy trusts (MATs) offers cost-cutting, skills sharing and better dispersement of the key talents needed.

He is right. Those who decide to follow a more solitary path will have the same pressures but nobody to share them with. The result could well be a lack of people prepared to give their time as trustees and governors. It could even trigger unwelcome staff departures.

The same applies to single schools that are not academies. And there is surely no reason why MATs cannot bind with other MATS to create even greater efficiencies.

Politicians and regulators can request all the change they like, but somebody has to implement whatever is wanted on the ground. That burden is better shared and increasingly needs better skills.

Crises stalk

The difficulty is that schools are arguably in a ‘perfect storm’ of crises, with some having overall deficits and in a struggle to balance budgets, let alone find skilled volunteers to help them make challenging choices. There are only so many music lessons that can be shed, after all, sad as it is to witness creative activity and the discipline that goes with it so often downgraded.

The pressure on school managers is already starting to filter through to meeting their regulatory responsibilites. Many compliance procedures are being missed, for example, which could have repercussions.

Meanwhile, the national picture is still wildly unclear, not least because we seem to have the Department for Education and Treasury equally likely to come up with policies at any given moment. Political turf wars are even more reason for schools to shelter together and share good practice and resources.

Whilst we should not dwell on the handful of mismanagement scandals in 2016 they should not be ignored either. In some respects they are canaries in a cage, an alert to wider problems. Incompetence and opportunity flourish when sectors are confused and under huge pressure. Education is both.

This may also be the year when Government finds it increasingly hard to get sponsors for failing academies, and in some cases we may see the most hopelessly managed forced to close. Head teachers in West Sussex have already said that they may need to cut school hours because of funding problems.

But the good news is that at least funding is under review in a consultation process, so there may well be sensible change. Until then, and in case nothing alters, the sensible course is to pool expertise as we enter the Chinese year of the rooster, during which red is an unlucky colour. Schools will be fighting hard to avoid their accounts going the same shade.

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