Lord Agnew has ‘doubled-down’ on his Champagne offer, robustly defending his viewpoint – we seem to have a huge perception gap between the financial ‘big picture’ view held by the DfE and the on the ground reality experienced by school leaders across the land – What’s going on??
So I woke this morning to read this article in Schools Week – in which Lord Agnew vigorously defends his ‘Champagne’ deal stating that he needs to ‘stir up some controversy’ and turn up the ‘amperage’ in the debate around school funding. This follows 'Little Extras' and Dominic Herrington's 'Crisis, what crisis?' article in the TES. We can be clear, the ‘Champagne’ offer was no careless slip of the tongue – no accidental slight to the profession here, a full-on deliberate attempt to rattle the cage. Ok, cage rattled… but let’s try to unpick what is being said here.
If there was any doubt before it is now absolutely clear that Lord Agnew, and therefore the Government more broadly, believe that there is plenty of money in education and if schools are struggling financially it must be because school leaders don’t know how to run them efficiently. There can be no doubt that this mindset is deeply entrenched in the DfE. I’m trying to reconcile that to my own experiences as a Headteacher and, since the airing of ‘School’, the experiences shared by other school leaders from across the land.
For example, this afternoon I will be speaking to a primary school headteacher who has already been through 2 restructures in order to save £250,000 and is now in the position where he needs to save further money and is looking at 5 redundancies.
In fairness, Lord Agnew acknowledges that there are ‘pressures’ especially if you are schools in a particular context but I would argue that those pressures are far more widespread than he appears to want to acknowledge.
Looking at this from a business point of view (after all he is making the case specifically about ‘back-office’ functions) is he right? Can more money be saved? Well, yes it can, but at what cost? Firstly, there is the coldness of the sweeping statement about cutting back-office personnel – it’s only numbers on a page after all let’s not worry about people and their jobs – savings to be made right? Ok, let’s put that to one side. How exactly is this achieved Lord Agnew? Even in a MAT this process is nowhere near as straight forward as is implied in this article. Yes, let’s centralise those functions – but the reality of the transition period will, in my experience:
1) Leave schools that are in position to move quickly (because staff have moved on), without many of those functions, this then means that this work has to be picked up by someone else (SLT?) whilst they wait for the MAT to create the central team
2) Leave the trust with the job of having to implement HR process for those school’s not in the position to move quickly. This needs to happen in order to free up the money and the personnel to create the central team
What results is a lengthy transition period where you have a hybrid model. The point is it takes time and the capacity of leaders, at a very time when you are looking to make savings and reduce the demand – result, extra pressure on everyone in the system, to what end? To save how much?
What if you are not in a MAT, as a stand-alone academy or school still under LA control. If you decide to make savings in back office functions who are you going to contract to cover this work?
Conclusion, if there are savings to be made it is not as simple to achieve as is being presented and it is questionable as to how much money is actually going to be saved, especially during the transition period.
The second point here is that the feeling on the ground is that the savings that are required will not be achieved by cutting ‘back-office’ function. Many schools are having to make painful decisions about pastoral support and classroom teachers.
Wherever you are on the ‘savings to be made’ spectrum you will be aware that difficult times lie ahead and all of this will be a distraction from leading your school and ensuring education and learning are your priorities.
The point Lord Agnew makes about ‘deals’ made to trusts is a distraction. First of all, by his own admission this was 18 months ago – things have changed a lot since then. Secondly, surely you have to ask yourself about the culture that exists in education where not one person replies to you – why might this be? Perhaps no-one wants to stick their head above the parapet, in the current climate that wouldn’t be a huge surprise.
I for one can’t see how this latest interview is helping to change that culture. What I can see is a whole lot of school leaders, who having read this article this morning, are yet again left wondering if anyone is prepared to listen to them. Maybe it is hard to be heard above the noise of all of the popping champagne corks.