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The troubling times roll on

29 September 2017

John Howson reports on the challenges facing schools, from pupil and teacher numbers to the new exam grading system


Numbers game: initiatives to promote the development of teachers in shortage subjects, such as maths, are not doing enough

Numbers game: initiatives to promote the development of teachers in shortage subjects, such as maths, are not doing enough

HOW much longer can our present school system last? Over the next few years, secondary-school num­bers are expected to rise; in primary schools, rolls are likely to decrease, largely as a result of fluctuations in the birth rate over the years. An exodus of young Europeans with school-age children might further cut school rolls in some areas.

Any reduction in rolls has to be a concern now that overall school funding is so closely tied to pupil numbers. As I have written over the past year, as the saga of a National Funding Formula for schools which has been buffeted by the winds of political turmoil has unfolded, the future for small Church of England primary schools — many located in rural areas — has been uncertain. It remains so today.

Whether Church of England schools are academies, or remain voluntary aided or controlled schools (or even, in a few cases, foundation schools), does not matter. The funding of all types of school will be the same, mitigated only by extra help for high-cost areas such as London and some of the surrounding areas, and pre­mium payments allocated to chil­dren from disadvantaged back­grounds, looked-after children, and those from service families.

Even with a guarantee that there will be no reduction in funding based on pupil numbers at any school — an improvement on the original Funding Formula announced last December — will small schools still be safe?

Governing bodies need to sit down with head teachers and look at pupil projections for three to five years ahead. I suspect that some will be facing a bleak future, especially if, at some point, teachers’ salaries rise faster than any increase in funding. At what point can a school no longer be considered “a going concern” in accountancy terms?


THIS year, after the A-level results had been announced, and clearing opened, more than 30 B.Ed. and other primary preparation courses — a few of them in church uni­versities — were in clearing with places still available.

The unfilled places reinforce con­cern expressed over the summer that fees of £9000, plus the need to fund living costs, are too high to attract potential teachers. A few years ago, far fewer teaching courses would have been in clearing; uni­versities will have to work harder than in the past at recruiting stu­dents.

The other big change this sum­mer is the new grading system for English and maths GCSEs. The new system will eventually be extended to all subjects. Grade 9 has replaced A*, and the Education Policy instit­ute, a think tank led by the former education minister David Laws, estimates that Grade 5 is the level of achievement where candidates are reaching an acceptable standard in international terms.

As ever, the supply of teachers and school leaders remains a concern for the whole public sector — particularly in London and the Home Counties. Regular readers of the education articles in this paper will recall that teacher supply has been a growing problem since the end of the recession. The pupil bulge has now reached the second­ary sector, and, because teachers are leaving state schools in worrying numbers, there are too few properly trained teachers in many key subjects.

The early signs for 2018, based on recruitment into graduate teacher-preparation courses, are not encour­aging. There will almost certainly be too few teachers to meet the de­­mand. Recruiting more overseas teachers, as the Government is doing, and encouraging professional development in shortage subjects such as maths, will help — but nowhere near enough to close the gap.

The Church of England must be prepared for the coming challenges, if it is to retain its significant posi­tion in the education of the nation’s children as we approach the 150th anniversary of the first Education Act, by Gladstone’s government, in 1870.


Profes­­sor John Howson is the chairman of TeachVac.

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