A new headteacher has called on the government to stop using education as a “political football” – and to sort out the issue of funding.
Alex Bird, who took up his role at St Mary’s CE Primary in Horsham in September, painted what has become a familiar picture of a school struggling to make ends meet in one of the lowest-funded counties in the country.
Mr Bird recently had to lose three support staff – a sizable chunk in a school of only seven classes – and has been appealing to parents to supply pens, pencils and paper in an attempt to save money.
He said: “On a personal level it’s causing me sleepless nights worrying about my staff.
“I feel that the teachers and in particular the support staff feel like the most under-valued people in the country.
“They’re working for an absolute pittance in terms of what they earn, in terms of supporting the children, and yet they are doing such an important job.
“You feel like they’re almost in the line of fire here in terms of cutbacks in schools, and I find that absolutely heartbreaking. And the responsibility of trying to maintain the levels of staffing is properly scary.”
St Mary’s was something of a dream job for Mr Bird, who told his wife 15 years ago that he would like to teach there.
While he was fortunate enough to fall on his feet, others were not so lucky and he shared his concerns about the number of teachers leaving the profession.
He said: “From my friends and cohorts when I trained to be a teacher, everybody that I had the utmost respect for has left the profession.
“They’ve just left through sheer disillusionment with the purpose of the job.
“They run sports centres, work in HR, devote their time to becoming artists. Lots of them have moved into management positions because they’ve obviously got lots of people skills.
“It’s just that sense of ‘I don’t want to be in teaching’.”
He added: “I had an email from Canterbury Christchurch University, who we’re a partner school for in terms of teacher training provision, saying that last year they had a 50 per cent drop in teachers that they were able to roll out. And they’ve had a further 40 per cent drop in applications this year for starting teacher training.”
Figures from the Department for Education (DfE) showed the university was not alone when it came to falling numbers.
While school standards minister Nick Gibb said there were a record number of teachers in schools, the DfE data saw teacher training targets being missed for the fifth year in a row, with only 80 per cent of places filled.
Mr Bird felt a lack of stability was one of the main reasons established teachers were leaving the profession.
He said: “We’ve had 11 secretaries of state for education since 2000, each coming in with their own agenda and changing priorities all the time.
“We have a change in the interim assessment framework over the years – literally they are moving the goalposts on an annual basis.
“2014 was the big change but they’ve subsequently moved the goalposts in terms of assessment each year.
“Year 2 and 6 teachers have to be aware of the changes to the goals they are assessing against for this year compared to last year already.
“There are certain basic things in life that children need and that’s what we should be equipping them for, not having goalposts changed constantly. That’s what people get thoroughly disillusioned with.”
Then, of course, there was the funding issue.
Mr Bird said: “One of my big nightmares is that sense of how to bring about genuine school improvement when I haven’t got funding to do so. That’s been hanging over me an awful lot.” Looking at friends in Berkshire and Greenwich, he asked why their schools received £400 and £1,600 more per pupil than schools in West Sussex.
He said: “Why? Why are we worth so little? Why are the children in our care worth so little to our society?”
He added: “The Education Act says that one group of children should not be treated differently to any others. How is this the Education Act being adhered to if we’re getting different amounts of funding from authority to authority?
“How is it fair to have different types of school all over the country with different funding formula for different types of school?
“It doesn’t seem to be the Education Act being upheld at all.”
Mr Bird praised the way his fellow headteachers had conducted themselves under the WorthLess? campaign for fairer funding, supporting the decision to keep it apolitical.
He added: “We shouldn’t be this political football that’s being kicked from one extreme to the other.
“I long for it to be taken out of being a political football. It’s the same with the curriculum. It’s just that sense of ‘please could you let us concentrate on delivering a world-class curriculum to the children instead of tweaking it every single year’.”
As well as having to cope with much less money than most schools in the country, St Mary’s and others in West Sussex face further financial burdens.
Mr Bird said that, from May, they will be required to hire a data protection manager. While a network of heads is looking into hiring one person to cover several schools, it will still cost them money.
And public spending watchdog the National Audit Office has long been saying schools will have to find £3bn in savings by 2019/20.
Mr Bird said the only way to make more savings would be to “look at cutting staffing”.
Describing the situation as “maddening”, he added: “These people are doing so much for the children for so little reward. They don’t do the job for the money, at the end of the day, they’re doing it for the love of the children of our country – and it’s the future of our country that’s actually in peril.”
A snapshot of life at St Mary’s
When Alex Bird talks about his staff and pupils he positively beams. Ask him about St Mary’s and he’ll speak at length about the school he sees as a “very, very special place to be”.
He said: “The atmosphere just screams at you. It’s the element of care you cannot get over and it just pervades the whole school community. Literally every one of my members of staff go that extra mile all the time, and it’s all about just love and care and wanting the best for everybody.”
As well as conducting itself as a church school, the ethos of St Mary’s is a comforting meld of developing the whole child and helping them to live life to the full.
There are plenty of extra-curricular clubs, sports clubs, music clubs (the lunchtime ukele club is rather good!) as well as whole class guitar and recorder lessons. They regularly head over to Barrack Field, the tennis club and the cricket club.
Mr Bird said: “It’s got to be about developing the whole child and if you don’t expose children to everything there is in life, how on earth are they going to know what they want to do as they get older? How are they going to find a sport they want to pursue in later years? How are they going to find a musical instrument they want to play?
“They’ve got to be exposed to it all and it’s really important we don’t lose those well-rounded elements of childhood at the expense of just English and maths.”
Since his arrival, he has introduced a development plan to improve the school’s progress scores. While reading was seen to be average, writing and maths were not and Mr Bird knows that improving those scores has to be a priority – something he is determined to address “while maintaining the wonderful atmosphere” at his school.
He added: “I think the special thing about St Mary’s is we absolutely focus on it being about living life to the full and while turning my English and maths grades round is really important, that is not going to be done at the expense of living life to the full.”