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Education: who has ideas for our schools?

24 May 2024

As a General Election looms, senior education leaders list their expectations of the next government


The Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, with the Shadow Education Secretary, Bridget Phillipson, at a school in Harlow, Essex, in March

The Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, with the Shadow Education Secretary, Bridget Phillipson, at a school in Harlow, Essex, in March

Head of a C of E primary school in the south-east

THE most obvious challenge for schools in providing the best education for our children concerns funding.

It is imperative that the Secretary of State for Education in the next government has a secure understanding of the many challenges faced by school leaders before implementing any new funding formulas, practice, policies, or change.

The effects of Covid are still prevalent in schools, and yet the catch-up funding remains ring-fenced, and schools are now expected to contribute 50 per cent of the cost from their own budget. This is not a viable solution.

The balancing of budgets has become a near-impossible task. As a result, recruitment is now based on “affordability” rather than “expertise”. The proposed setting of deficit budgets result in redundancies and restructuring, which leaves a school vulnerable when trying to support the school community.

In addition, the current financial climate has placed tremendous pressure on both schools and families. School utility bills have rocketed, alongside the increase of cost for schools to meet when purchasing resources. And families have felt the impact of the rising cost of living, leaving them to contact schools, and other local organisations, for help.

Covering staff sickness and supporting staff to support their own families brings about additional pressure for the school community.

Meeting the needs of a rising number of children who have specific additional or medical needs within a mainstream setting shifts the focus of the budget and school organisation. Proper funding of SEN support is vital.

The lack of specialist support places a higher burden on schools with already over-stretched resources. Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and other such organisations are running waiting lists of 18 months. Even school-nurse referrals are a ten-week wait.

The increasingly pressing issue of mental health and well-being, both for families and staff, cannot be ignored. Specialist training by leaders has been required, which involves following a recommended course and gaining the qualification. This has been in addition to the normal workload.

Leading a school in an area of social deprivation, where 46 per cent of our children have experienced at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE), adds further pressure. Safeguarding and child-protection practices are paramount in ensuring the safety of the children.

For a church school such as ours, the Church of England Vision for Education 2016 is paramount. Our commitment to being “Deeply Christian, serving the common good” drives our decisions. But how can this be effectively achieved when the challenge for schools is as great as it is?

For leaders of church schools, upholding this Christian vision is compromised by lack of funding and resources. Yet leaders will never waver in their commitment to this.

Holding schools to account by purely-data outcomes and single-word Ofsted judgements are very different from the “holistic” approach to teaching and learning that primary schools plan for carefully when writing their curriculum. This also needs to change.

With all of these challenges in mind, the next Secretary of State for Education needs to be really clear about their philosophy of education for the children of our country.

Their philosophy has to be evidence-based, to enable the delivery of a holistic curriculum which would address the challenges faced by children and their families in today’s world.

Not only must the systems and processes for delivery and accountability then be established, they must be fully funded in order to fulfil this vision.


Emma Lambden, head teacher of Thirsk School and Sixth Form College, North Yorkshire

I HAVE been serving Thirsk School and Sixth Form College for six years. I absolutely love it. It’s a fantastic place. It’s a proper community school with more than 1000 students — which adds a real buzz to our little market town.

We receive strong support from the local authority, our MP, Kevin Hollinrake, parents, and the wider community. There are many individuals doing much good. So, why aren’t we shifting things in the right direction?

Emma Lambden, head teacher of Thirsk School and Sixth Form College

There are three main areas where we need to see change from the next government: money, recruitment, and support services.

The most ridiculous decision that’s been made in my teaching career has been to give unfunded pay rises. The exponential growth for people as they go up the scale just means it’s absolutely untenable.

Schools will be left to fund most of the increase themselves. I don’t think there will be a school in the land that isn’t in debt.

I’ve spoken to my local MP and given him data from the school leaders’ union, ASCL. One of their surveys said that most school leaders would rather have a lower pay rise that was fully funded.

Recruitment is the next thing. Foolishly, it was thought that pay would be the answer. I get it. There is a logic to it. But I think that there needs to be a bigger piece of work there around recruitment.

I’m coming up to the age of 51, and some of my peers are saying: “I’m done, I’m leaving the profession.” These are good people who have done a good job. I’m not sure where we will find the people to replace them as the leaders of the future.

Support is another major need. As a school, we’re primarily here to educate, but we tend to do a lot of the wrap-around care, and rightly so. We rely on other services, such as social care, mental-health support services, and others to do that. But those agencies have little or no funding whatsoever. If we’re in a bad state, I’d say that they’re in a worse state.

If more funding was applied to health care and social care, many problems for families would disappear. For example, at present it takes about three or four years — certainly in North Yorkshire — for a young person to get a diagnosis for neurodiverse issues, such as autism. That waiting time has a massive impact on their lives. As teachers, we have to grapple with that, without having the diagnosis. It’s not right.

You see families where mental-health issues have run through the generations. That’s happened for decades: it’s not a new thing. And yet, because we haven’t improved those services, the same cycles just keep happening for certain families. That needs looking at.

So, money, recruitment, and support services are the biggest areas of need, and the first issues that the next Secretary of State for Education should tackle. But it’s not just about throwing money around — changes need to be done with much thought, and meaning.

For example, during the pandemic, we were told that whenever Covid hit the school, we should phone a hotline and log it in. Of course, that made sense, because the Government wanted to track numbers. But the waiting time on that hotline was three hours. I’m sure many school leaders stopped phoning in, and just kept their own records.

The education community needs funding, yes, but funding that is applied with understanding.


Katie Freeman, RE leader at Bickleigh Down Primary School, Devon, and chair of the National Association of Teachers of RE (NATRE)

AS CHAIR of NATRE and a primary-school subject leader of RE, I know that any new government’s attitude to RE matters.

Katie Freeman, RE leader at Bickleigh Down Primary School, Devon, and chair of the National Association of Teachers of RE

NATRE works hard to ensure that all teachers of RE, in both secondary and primary schools, are well equipped to teach high-quality RE for all pupils in all schools. NATRE and its members are clear that there are key messages that we want whichever party forms the next government to be mindful of.

Ofsted’s recent report on religious education placed heavy emphasis on the importance of high-quality RE for all pupils in all schools. As a primary-school teacher, I am fortunate to work in a school that sees the importance of RE, gives it high status within the school, and values the contribution that it gives to the wider curriculum.

In my position as the chair of NATRE, however, I regularly speak to teachers who feel that they have to fight for the status of their subject, and for whom securing their own subject-knowledge development training is often problematic.

The Religious Education Council recently published its National Content Standard for Religious Education. This content standard offers schools clear guidance on what should be found in RE curricula, and the training support that schools should receive. This content standard is part of a Religion and Worldviews toolkit, with a suite of materials supporting a Religion and Worldviews approach to teaching RE. I would urge any new Government to endorse these materials, to further support teachers in their curriculum design and teaching of RE.

As a subject community, we were pleased to see the return of the bursary for secondary RE teachers. This bursary is essential, because we know that the profession is in a recruitment crisis. Anecdotally, many secondary colleagues are having huge problems trying to recruit specialist teachers to their departments. This often leads to the teaching of RE by non-specialists, or schools’ not meeting the legal entitlement for the subject.

Within the RE community, we know that this lack of subject specialism leads to lack of teacher confidence, and concern about the subject knowledge that the children in our schools are receiving. Indeed, with a subject such as RE, which focuses on the lived experience of people with religious and non-religious world-views, this lack of subject knowledge can lead to worrying misconceptions and misrepresentation.

I would urge any new government to commit itself to continuing this bursary, and to supporting specialist teachers of RE by reinstating the subject-knowledge enhancement support for those training to teach RE from different specialisms.

As a primary RE specialist teacher, teaching RE from Foundation through to Year 6, my final request in the lead-up to a General Election would be to recognise and acknowledge the value of RE in schools.

I love teaching RE. The most interesting, thoughtful, and rich discussions that I have had in my 18 years of teaching have been those in the RE classroom. It teaches children about the diverse world in which we live, and that, although some of us might identify as having the same world-view, we live these out in different ways.

High-quality RE helps pupils to make sense of the world, sending them out into the world of work with an understanding and respect for the range of religious and non-religious world-views that people have.

My ask, then, of the next Secretary of State for Education is: give RE the status in the curriculum that it deserves. Recognise the talented, specialist teachers of RE. And give the subject that funding that it deserves.


Fred Corbett, chair of St Benet’s Multi-Academy Trust, diocese of Norwich

SOMEWHAT biblically, I have seven pleas to whoever forms the next government. These pleas are not to add fuel to the nonsense about education being broken, and the undermining that goes on about the many qualities of our young people and their teachers. But we know that we could achieve a great deal more for more children if we could have a national environment of trust, support, and properly resourced provision in a 21st-century working environment.

So, my first plea is for a new government to set out its education values, making a commitment to learning that is based on a balance between a broad, relevant curriculum, with essential skills, knowledge, and experiences given due weighting — and not just focus on those that can be easily measured.

Fred Corbett, chair of the diocese of Norwich St Benet’s MAT

Second, take early years seriously, and stop the political football about integrated services for children. The evidence is clear: if we get it right in those early years, the system and the children can thrive.

Third, we need a sensitive regulatory environment that accommodates children’s variable growth and development. We need to stop being slaves to age and stage, but develop proper measures of progress. The regulatory environment needs to include the profession in its development and operation: we need to tackle things when they are not serving children well, but the measures need fairness and transparency, and not just to seek simplicity.

My next couple of pleas relate to the important part that multi-academy trusts (MATs) can play in a collaborative system that does not pitch schools against each other in an outdated competitive manner.

Number four is for government to stop the uncertainty about MATs and local-authority schools and create a sensible interlocking system where the part played by both is clear, and all schools are within a well-led and governed MAT. This could be achieved by working with the Confederation of School Trusts (CST) to develop deeper collaborations and help build a strong environment of improvement.

This requires my fifth plea to be fulfilled: set agreed standards for MATs, to ensure that they are meeting their side of what the system delivers, tested by a trustworthy regulatory system.

The Nobel Prizewinner Pearl Buck, among others, is credited with stating the view that a civilisation is tested by the way in which it cares for its weakest members. A fundamental measure applied to any government is the success that it has in ensuring that public services have the resources that they need to ensure that all schools can support vulnerable children whose social, health, or economic environment creates barriers to education.

Linked to that is plea number six: the education of those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) must be properly resourced, to enable the children to fulfil their potential.

My seventh plea underpins all that goes before: the system’s resources are in a mess. Children in this country are able and capable; their teachers are of a very high calibre and can create an excellent service; there are superb support services and knowledgeable people willing to work for the nation’s children. But the system needs to be funded properly.

There must be realistic, transparent, and planned funding for the education system, based on a properly researched national formula that allocates enough funding per student, enables realistic high-quality support services, and pays teachers well, so that we can recruit the expertise a world-class system needs.

In the mean time, additional resources are needed in the first year of a new government to get the funding of all schools back in balance.


Trevor Cristin, Director of Education, diocese of Chichester

AS A diocesan director of education (DDE), I am only too aware of the challenges facing our schools at this time. In the context of a nation recovering from the pandemic and still battling a cost-of-living crisis, it is often in schools where the communal anxiety is released. For school leaders and their teams, this is hugely challenging, on both personal and professional levels. The toll on many is obvious.

Trevor Cristin, Chichester Diocesan Director of Education

I don’t think it is overtly political to say that we are acutely conscious of the funding challenges that we all face. So many schools are facing deficit in the future, or are actively dealing with it now. Solving problems such as these is not what most school leaders went into education for, but it has become the norm, and it is draining and dispiriting for so many. Nowhere is this more evident than in the crisis around SEND funding, where head teachers and governors are often being asked to achieve too much with too little resource.

I think every school leader I speak to understands the economic challenges any new government will face. It goes without saying that we would all strongly desire more money in schools, but the same would be said for health care, social care, transport infrastructure . . . the list goes on.

While increased funding would undoubtedly help schools, that is not the first thing that I would ask of the next government. As a DDE, I have had the privilege of working alongside a very wide range of colleagues. These include politicians at local and national level.

I am very struck that, almost without exception, we all want the same thing. We all have a fervent desire to see our children and families flourish. We might not always agree about how to achieve that, but that desired outcome is very much shared.

In the light of that, the main thing I would ask of any incoming government is to view the professionals who are involved in the day-to-day provision of education as being on the same side.

Of course, it would be naïve to believe that government and educators will always agree; but we need to be mature enough to disagree well and with a constructive mindset. That can be achieved only by establishing a sense of mutual respect and understanding. Achieving that will take time, patience, and meaningful engagement from all sides, and, essentially, it will be the government that sets the tone for those early conversations.

As Christian leaders in Church of England worshipping and learning communities, we are uniquely placed to participate in, and facilitate, a positive dialogue that moves us forward together towards those commonly desired outcomes of flourishing children and families.

Educational professionals know what their children need, and have a deep desire to serve and see children thrive. I do believe that this is shared by many in political authority. So an open and honest dialogue between valued and respected partners is essential, and would offer obvious benefit for the common good.


Jerry White, chief executive of City College Norwich

MY PROFESSIONAL background is in sports psychology. So, it’s interesting that I find myself leading a large city and county college of 9500 students — many of them wanting to reframe problems as opportunities, and to have more belief in their abilities.

At City College Norwich, we offer a vast range of courses, from make-up artistry at big theatre productions and aviation engineering on a jumbo jet. I’d like the new government to have more belief in the abilities of the further-education (FE) sector.

There are several things that the incoming Secretary of State could do to boost FE and help our young people to fly. They could pause on qualification change, introduce alternative certifications for maths and English, and offer a higher level of investment in FE.

Jerry White, chief executive of City College Norwich

Any new government will have the opportunity to properly consult with the FE sector. Being able to plot properly what the future looks like is probably my big ask.

We face challenging times. But it makes no sense to make large-scale qualification changes now, knowing that you potentially want to change in six to eight years’ time. We need to pause and reconsider reforms before moving on.

That goes hand in hand with having a hard think about how English and maths work in the post-16 environment. At present, we have a blunt, one-size-fits-all national policy on resitting English and maths.

To its credit, this move has focused on driving up literacy and numeracy. The downside is that repeating the GCSEs is not the right tool when you’re dealing with a group that’s already had 11 years of schooling and hasn’t reached the prescribed level.

These young people have been fed into an exams machine and popped out at the other end not fitting the mould, not hitting the level that we’ve set for “good”. So, rather than stop to understand these students and redefine what “good” could mean for them, we push them back through the same exams machine.

We need different tools to do that job more effectively. Otherwise, we’re going to turn young people off and demotivate them.

Along with pausing and understanding comes investing. There are a couple of quick wins that a new government could do, quite easily.

The first thing to recognise is that charging VAT at further-education colleges — but not school sixth forms — is a striking anomaly. A simple levelling-out could immediately put millions of pounds into technical education.

My college pays in the region of £1.7 million of VAT each year, which the school sixth form down the road does not. Yet, in many cases, we deliver the same qualifications to the students of the same age. Changing that would be a quick win for the new Chancellor.

Another fast fix would be to end the funding cuts for every 18-year-old student. We get considerably less money for them to do the same programme as a 16- or 17-year-old, who may well be in the same class.

We’re not providing the older students with less tuition. That’s not allowed. But we are being penalised by nearly £800,000 a year for supporting an older person’s three-year journey rather than the two-year journey of a younger person. That should be changed.

Overnight, the new government could be pumping a different level of funding and investment into technical education. Let’s help our young people overcome barriers to learning, and equip them fully for their future lives.


Professor Mathew Guest, head of the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University

IT HAS been more than 25 years since I first taught in a university classroom. During my career, I’ve seen tuition fees increased significantly, government funding cut, several periods of industrial action, and the upheaval of the pandemic — not to mention the changes that come with new learning technologies, counter-terrorism legislation, and value-changes that accompany the emergence of new generations of students. All have had an impact on the university classroom, and bring fresh challenges for university teaching staff.

Take the introduction of high undergraduate tuition fees. The greater sense of financial sacrifice has understandably heightened students’ awareness of what they are entitled to receive. On the plus side, this has increased the willingness of universities to attend to the quality of what they provide — ensuring that higher education is delivered in a way that’s well considered, pedagogically responsible, and attendant to students’ circumstances.

Unfortunately, these increased demands have coincided with a period of real-terms disinvestment by the UK Government. Home tuition fees have been fixed since 2012, which, in a period of high inflation, means that they are worth a fraction of what they once were. So, my first big ask of any incoming government is that they grasp the nettle of university funding, and set up a system that’s capable of sustaining our excellent universities and their students’ education in the long term.

Professor Mathew Guest, head of the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University

My second ask is a lot cheaper — at least, in financial terms. It is that the UK Government start to speak positively about universities again. There was a time, not so long ago, when universities were held up alongside the armed forces, the NHS, even the Premiership, as great British institutions. Unfortunately, a shift to the populist Right in British politics has included an adoption of culture-wars rhetoric, so that universities are viewed as a social problem rather than institutions to be proud of.

It would be heartening to see a reversal of this trend by an incoming government, one whose first instinct is to see the enormous potential of universities as engines of social mobility, bastions of free thought and speech, and key players in reviving the UK economy.

Government might consider how to empower universities to do more of what they do best: critical thinking within supportive communities. A special plea here is for the arts and humanities, which are facing the most severe funding cuts right now, and yet are often the disciplinary fields in which this critical thinking is done best.

A call to recognise the economic contribution made by universities is not incompatible with recognising the immense value of subjects beyond science, engineering, technology, and maths (STEM). Universities are valuable because they generate a variety of social goods: technological innovation, business enterprise, critical thinking, responsible citizenship, democratic engagement, and so on. These are advanced most effectively within institutions that encompass a range of subject areas, not just those with high income potential.

Finally, the Government needs to recognise the value brought to the UK by international students. Once we get beyond the anti-immigration rhetoric of the far right, the economic arguments are indisputable. A recent study found that international students starting their studies in 2020-21 would generate a net £37.4 billion for the UK economy.

But there are pedagogical and cultural arguments in favour, too. I have joined a group of colleagues in researching the benefits of what we call “provocative encounters” on university campuses — experiences of diversity which inspire students to rethink their assumptions about those who are different from themselves. The research reveals how functioning within a diverse classroom can help students to develop the skills to relate to a range of people, and become more thoughtful about their own preconceptions.

A diverse classroom makes for a more critical and reflective learning space. Students learn how to be responsible and informed citizens by being educated in culturally diverse environments. So, the presence of international students benefits everyone.

I just hope that a new government will be brave enough to acknowledge this positive message. We certainly need it.

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