It stops being fun when those under-dogs are our headteachers and our schools. And there’s absolutely nothing to smile about when they’re fighting to secure enough money from the government to be able to give our children a decent education.
It’s been almost two years since headteachers warned us the county faced an education funding crisis. With West Sussex being one of the poorest funded local authorities in the country, our schools have received thousands of pounds less per pupil than those at the higher end of the pecking order – and hundreds of pounds per pupil less than those who received no more than the national average.
With hundreds of children per school, that added up to an awful lot of money.
Headteachers took their fight for fairer funding to Downing Street, made their case on mainstream TV and wrote letters asking questions of the county’s MPs. Every single one of them gave us reason to be proud as they ensured the spotlight never shifted from the people at the centre of it all – the children.
Unfortunately, the support from the powers-that-be has not been so impressive.
West Sussex has an extremely strong presence in Parliament when it comes to education. Nick Gibb, MP for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, is Minister for Education, while Henry Smith, MP for Crawley, is Parliamentary Private Secretary to Justine Greening, the Secretary of State for Education.
They’ve all made the right noises and even took to Westminster Hall for a debate on the issue – not that Mr Smith, Mr Gibb or Ms Greening were present. While having the potential to offer much, the debate did little more than give those who turned up the opportunity to mouth a few soundbites for the cameras.
Over the past weeks, some MPs have given the impression they resent the pro-active stance taken by our headteachers.
Speaking on Meridian News, Sir Peter Bottomley, MP for Worthing West, said: “My advice to teachers is come and talk to the MPs first, come and see ministers with us.
“To start sending letters out as though it’s a sort of great petition when we’re actually aware of the issues, we’re providing the leadership, and I think if the headteachers got together with me or even better with Jeremy Quin and Nicholas Soames, who are leading for the West Sussex MPs, I think we’ll get a great deal further forward.”
Looking back over the past two years, it’s clear the heads have been talking to MPs – have been trying to make them understand how serious the situation has become. Backed by Louise Goldsmith, leader of the county council, who showed true leadership when she wrote to Ms Greening, pleading for support, it’s hard to understand how they could have done more.
It’s the lack of urgency shown by our representatives in Parliament that has proven frustrating.
Take Sir Peter’s meeting with ministers. It was mooted in November, but a date was only set after headteachers published an open letter to their MPs earlier this month asking why it had not happened. They will meet on February 1.
Then there’s the new National Funding Formula, which MPs have been keen to laud at every opportunity. It’s still in the final consultation stage, but as it stands West Sussex schools should receive around £79 per pupil more.
Considering they’re already £402 per pupil short of the national average, it’s easy to see why they aren’t popping the champagne. Add to that the increasing costs, such as pay, pensions and national insurance contributions – none of which are covered in that basic grant – and it’s obvious our schools will be worse off.
No matter how many times MPs praise the way they’ve rearranged the dwindling piles of money in the country’s pitiful education budget, our schools will be worse off.
Peter Woodman, head of the Weald School, Billingshurst, said: “It’s absolutely critical our MPs understand the pressure that we’re under. In one sense they know the pressure we’re under but at times we have to question whether they really understand the impact that’s having on the ground, on us as teachers, headteachers and as students.”
In an attempt to fathom the thoughts of MPs, the headteachers sent an open letter asking five questions.
The same questions were asked by this newspaper. Sadly the response, as predicted, was vague, incomplete and centred around the same, oft-repeated information – the current funding formula is not fit for purpose and the new funding formula is more transparent.
That is just not good enough. Of course we understand there is no bottomless pile of cash in the government’s coffers, ready for a funding free-for-all – but there must be fairness in the way the money is distributed.
Our message to the MPs of West Sussex is simple – please answer the questions.
Tell us why you think it’s acceptable for West Sussex to remain one of the lowest-funded authorities in the country;
Tell us why there will be no emergency money to plug the budget gaps left by years of under funding;
Tell us what else headteachers should cut from their budgets to make ends meet;
Tell us what happened to the government’s pledge to protect the per pupil funding for the life of this parliament;
and tell us where that £500m earmarked for the government’s now-scrapped academies programme went, and why it can’t be used to help authorities such as ours.
Please, Mr Quin, Mr Smith, Mr Herbert, Mr Gibb, Mr Loughton, Mr Tyrie, Sir Nicholas and Sir Peter – tell us what you’re going to do to ensure the children of West Sussex don’t fall behind their richer peers because your government doesn’t think they’re worth any extra money?
They deserve the best, and you’re not delivering.
This article was the personal view of the author.
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