03 June 2024

Monday Briefing 3rd June 2024: Fever

Monday Briefing 3rd June 2024: Fever

Following Rishi Sunak’s calling of a General Election on the 22nd of May, whilst the nation is not quite yet in the grip of campaigning fever, political discourse has certainly gone up a notch.

The four key issues being debated seem to be the economy, the NHS, the ‘cost of living crisis’ and immigration, though on Question Time last week, the matter most pressing for me, personally, came to the fore near the end of the programme as Piers Morgan, Nigel Farage and Damien Hinds (not my natural individuals of concordance, it must be said) took on Wes Streeting, calling the proposed Labour policy of imposing 20% VAT on independent school fees ‘the worst kind of politics of envy’, ‘a war on aspiration’ and ‘a moral injustice to take away choice from parents.’

Before I go any further, I’d just like to rewind to the turn of the century, and a powerful quote:

"We owe it to every child to unleash their potential. They are of equal worth. They deserve an equal chance.”

“A failed education is a life sentence on a child.”

Who said it, you might ask?

Well, it was Tony Blair, the last Labour Party leader who won a general election, during his ‘Third Way’ speech back in 1999.

I understand entirely the basis of Labour’s policy as an attempt to invest more in the state sector. I have been a Labour voter my entire life. I am fully supportive of equality, and agree that society should benefit the many rather than the few.

I went to a state school - a really poor one - where less than 10% of my year group went on to university. In an area devoid of aspiration, I worked very hard to gain the grades I needed to get to an excellent university. There, I saw ambition, confidence and self esteem first hand, and because of it, I grew. I was one of the few who made it out and on to better things whilst the majority of contemporaries struggled, so yes, Mr Blair’s words about a lack of education amounting to a life sentence resonated deeply with me.

I started my career in teaching in the state sector, working in three different schools over ten years, and still recall, very well, the discrepancy between outstanding schools and those in special measures, given the fact that I worked for four years each in both. Again, I fully agree with Blair’s belief in the equal worth of children, and, though it rarely happens, in the equality of opportunity.

It took my move to the independent sector in 2014, and, subsequently, my becoming Principal there, to really understand the issue with what Blair was saying. Only now do I appreciate what can be done for those who need the help most. Equality is not the issue here - it’s equity. If ‘one size fits all’ truly worked in education, then absolutely - Blair, and, indeed, Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour policy would have the right principles. But ‘one size fits all’ doesn’t work, and will never work because every student is different, and some simply can not thrive in large schools. And so, bringing in a policy which reduces options brings closer the ‘life sentence’ which Blair talked about for more of our young people.

I’ve seen the above image in many forms: different sized ladders hoisting individuals up to gain access to apples; the same bicycle for three people with completely different needs; staggered starts on an athletics track. The ‘watching the baseball’ analogy, for me, is the simplest and best.

Now let’s take the analogy to schools. You could put every single student in the country in the same type of school with the same support, and I’m sure that you would end up with the first image. The best and brightest would thrive. Those without the means to progress would not, and would be condemned to the life sentence Blair spoke of. 

Then we have the second image, and I’d like to think that the school where I am Principal enables such a scenario. Because class sizes, and the overall school community, is small, we can tailor the support for students more easily - to find a way to work with them rather than to impose rules upon them. To work to ensure that education is enjoyed and not endured. To help students to find their way towards success, empowering them whilst doing so. Everyone has the best chance to succeed. What they do with that chance is up to them.

Moving on to the third image, well, that would be the ideal scenario in a perfect world. The issue is that this is simply not the reality we are faced with. The ‘systemic barrier’ will always be there. Special Educational Needs do not simply disappear. Social Emotional and Mental Health difficulties do not just vanish. Scarring from anxiety and trauma which could have been borne out of bullying or stressful experiences persist. These issues can be mitigated with support through the construction of deep, trusting relationships which help build dignity and self respect, but it takes time and resources to make that work. Time and resources which are less effective when you have thirty in every class. Of course, the pandemic has exacerbated these issues, increasing student absence, apprehension and disengagement with education.

That is in no way a sleight against teachers in state schools who teach classes of thirty. I have many excellent friends who work incredibly hard day in day out to deliver for their students in the state sector. I enjoyed my time working in the state schools, and would happily work there again. The harsh reality of the situation is that no matter how hard one works, the odds of the ability to reach each and every child become slimmer and slimmer as class sizes grow. 

Helping students be the very best they can be is what attracted me to teaching in the first place, and that ambition is still at the core of what I do. To see a student, seemingly destined for failure, turn things around with support is, without doubt, the most fulfilling feeling one can experience in my role.

If students are to realise their potential, then a smaller class size, for some, is an imperative. It is the only environment within which they can move forward as they get the support, both academically and pastorally, that they need.

Another imperative, of course, is having a well qualified teacher with whom that deep, trusting relationship can be built. This is the Labour Party reasoning for the policy - according to the Labour List, which explored Sir Keir Starmer’s ‘six first steps to change’ in his likely manifesto. It will use the money generated by tax on independent schools to ‘recruit over 6,500 new teachers in key subjects … and address the rising number of staff vacancies.’ 

The shortage of teachers is not a new problem, and I’ve written about it several times in my blogs. As a small school, only usually needing to fill one or two vacancies each summer, I can count myself as extremely fortunate. Staff recruitment, however, is rarely plain sailing. We regularly receive few applicants, and certain subjects present considerable difficulties. Every appointment takes a great deal of effort to secure.

I fail to see the direct link between taxing independent schools and improving staffing levels though. Without significant changes to pay and conditions, alongside the status of teachers themselves in education, I don’t see how the profession as a vocation becomes more attractive. Of course, the ‘six first steps’ does not deal with the detail of how pay and conditions could change, or indeed how the status of the role could be lifted, though the Labour Party are likely to inherit a difficult financial situation should they come to power - and an instant wage rise looks unlikely for those currently in teaching.

Nonetheless, Labour feel that if VAT on fees comes in, it will raise £1.6 billion a year according to the IFS which “would allow for about a 2% increase in state school spending in England”, which seems like a drop in the ocean. On the other hand, another analysis, by the Adam Smith institute argued that it would be “reasonable and cautious”, to consider a “less optimistic” scenario of 10-15% of pupils migrating to state schools, under which it estimates the policy would generate no net revenue.

The reason for this would be that the £7,690 which goes into funding each student who does not take their place at a state school would not be redistributed amongst the other students. And the £4,096 which would be gained in VAT from every set of parents who send their children to independent schools would be diminished if they went to the state sector instead. Already the threat of the policy is causing a great deal of consternation amongst parents who are looking to wait and see how this all plays out. Some newspapers have predicted that as many as 25% of independent school parents would move away from the sector. These predictions are just that though. No one truly knows the impact - but the sense of doubt is certainly now present.

‘Those poor rich schools’ is often the sarcastic retort directed at the independent sector, with little consideration for the smaller educational establishments which exist on tight budgets seeking to provide exactly the kind of support that we do - with the majority of our students having additional needs and almost a quarter of them allocated an Education, Health and Care Plan, coming from several Local Authorities which are finding it increasingly difficult to place students, and with whom we work with extensively to assist them in their endeavours. We know that we offer something more appropriate for those here than they find in a larger setting, and that this has been the salvation of many students.

Even less consideration goes to the parents in this situation, foremost in their own thoughts being the wellbeing of their children. The most common reasons which parents tend to opt for independent schools are where their children simply haven’t been coping, or that they seek the more individual attention that small class sizes allow, or a broader experience, in either curricular or extra curricular areas. Not for status, or for privilege, but because they put their children first.

The least of all consideration goes to the students themselves. I truly dread to think of the loss which students who have struggled to find happiness in education will have to experience if they are forced back to an environment which they moved away from. A whole host of new ‘life sentences’ bestowed on these children through no fault of their own.

It was in the final exchanges of Question Time that another panellist, the Rt Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin stated, perhaps most pertinently ‘how can we resource all our schools so that all our schools are good? All our schools can have small [class] sizes? All our teachers can be brilliant?

These are the sorts of questions which Labour should be asking, because they are at the heart of ensuring that all students succeed, that the range of schools we have can provide the right environment for every student, whether they thrive in larger or smaller settings, whether they need more intensive support or not. Equity brings a better solution than equality.

Only through closer collaboration between state and independent can all students have the necessary options to give the best chance to avoid the ‘life sentence’ Blair described. The sharing of expertise, of resources, of opportunity. Every student is indeed equal, and they all deserve an equal chance. That much is certainly true. 

But a ‘one size fits all’ approach will not make this happen. Strength comes from a more diverse range of schools where the range of needs can be truly met, and only in the right environment, where each and every student feels safe and comfortable to learn, can they reach their potential. Independent schools are not the problem - they are a vital part of the solution.

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