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From The Socialist newspaper, 9 June 2021

Tory school catch-up plan: Fight for the funding our schools and colleges need

Strike wins school funding reprieve for Valentine school in Southampton 2019, photo Southampton Socialist Party

Strike wins school funding reprieve for Valentine school in Southampton 2019, photo Southampton Socialist Party   (Click to enlarge)

Martin Powell-Davies, Socialist Party member and candidate for NEU deputy general secretary

Tory appointed Education Recovery Commissioner Sir Kevan Collins has quit. The Treasury has refused to foot the bill of 15 billion he deemed necessary for pupils in English schools to catch up, instead stumping up less than 10% of what was suggested. That's just 6,000 a year for an average primary school.

In response, Collins resigned saying: "I do not believe it is credible that a successful recovery can be achieved with a programme of support of this size".

On this, Collins is absolutely correct. But it isn't just the funding for 'recovery' that is woefully inadequate. Schools and colleges have suffered from years of real-term spending cuts. Many schools have been announcing further job cuts for the end of this academic year.

The NEU has a long-standing campaign for increased education spending after years of real-term spending cuts, so it is laughable that Tory Minister Nadhim Zahawi has tried to blame teaching unions for Collins' resignation! Zahawi complains that unions "resisted the idea of extending the school day in the first place". But there's no contradiction between questioning the extension of the school day and demanding proper investment in quality education.

Making tired children sit in class, or with tutors, for even longer days of 'catch-up cramming' isn't what's needed. And, in practice, the pressure to staff an extended school day would be on existing teachers and support staff.

Breaking point

But we are already at breaking point. Excessive workload is already the main reason so many teachers leave the profession - a staggering third of new entrants within the first five years in the job. These plans will drive even more out of teaching, unless we organise to make sure the Tories' plans are dropped and, instead action is taken to reduce workload.

Under current contracts teachers are only obliged to deliver 1,265 hours of 'directed time' every academic year, so school employers could not enforce a longer working day. However, the pressure on staff to do so, including the pressure from performance-related pay, will still be exerted in some schools. School union groups will need to organise to make sure workload isn't increased yet further through 'divide-and-rule' amongst staff.

Proper investment in additional staffing is vitally needed, not cheap-rate tutoring schemes. Any additional funding would be best spent on support within the existing school day, rather than by extending it. The UK has some of the largest numbers in school classes globally, especially in primary schools. Class sizes should be cut to ensure pupils get more individual attention, and to reduce teacher workload. There's also a need for schools to be able to provide greater pastoral support, with additional mentors and counsellors as well, particularly to support mental health.

Schools should be given the flexibility to make decisions to best meet the needs of their students, but above all must be given the necessary funding. If schools are going to offer extended sessions, then they should concentrate on activities such as sport, drama, art and music that many families cannot afford to pay for their children to participate in.

Sadly, Williamson and the Treasury have showed that they aren't interested in genuinely investing in our children's future. Instead they are looking to get by on the cheap by trying to force overworked staff and stressed students to simply work for longer. Together, parents, staff and students must say no - and unions must prepare action to oppose any attempt to impose a further worsening of conditions.

Indeed, we should go further and demand the additional investment our schools and colleges need and a new national contract for all staff that includes trade-union negotiated class sizes and staffing policies that makes sure there is sufficient staffing in place to meet needs - as well as to limit workload.

Martin Powell-Davies is standing for deputy general secretary of NEU, and your branch of NEU can nominate him; nominations are open now.

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