General Election 2017: The perfect storm

Written by: Russell Hobby | Published:
Russell Hobby, general secretary, National Association of Head Teachers

This summer, secondary schools face a ‘perfect storm’ of unsustainable pressures, says Russell Hobby

At our annual conference over the weekend, NAHT members began predicting that a “perfect storm” of pressures is about to hit secondary schools in England.

For many, the edges of the storm are already creating problems that will have dire consequences for standards and for pupils. The combination of challenges has never been greater. School leaders are concerned about maintaining high standards in the face of upheaval on so many fronts. By loading more uncertainty onto the secondary system than ever before the government is taking a real risk that they will break it.

So what are the factors that make up this chain of events? And, most importantly, what can be done? School leaders say that the combination of challenges they face begins with recruitment and retention, is driven by the £3 billion of real-terms cuts to budgets and includes the wholesale changes to the subjects that secondary school students can study.

Throw in concerns about how Brexit will affect the 5,000 EU nationals who work as teachers plus the government’s proposals to increase the number of grammar schools and it is not difficult to see how schools are suddenly faced with an overwhelming number of conflicting and interconnecting priorities.

This weekend, our delegates voted overwhelmingly to campaign vigorously to reject the proposed expansion of selection at 11 or older in the absence of any compelling evidence that it promotes social mobility. One thing that more selection at 11 won’t help is recruitment.

Many schools are finding it harder and harder to recruit, particularly in the most demanding posts to fill like maths, science and languages where there is an acknowledged shortage of graduates.

The problem isn’t helped by the unavoidable and scandalous fact that year-after-year, the government has missed its own targets for teacher recruitment and that 30 per cent of new teachers leave the profession after five years. Our own research shows school leaders have struggled or failed to recruit in eight out of 10 cases. Recruitment has never been more challenging.

To guarantee enough high-quality teachers, schools are now paying a premium either to cover the high cost of living in desirable areas or to attract preferred candidates to more challenging areas.

This is a cost that many schools just can’t sustain. All schools are operating under unacceptable levels of financial pressure. In order to balance their budgets, 66 per cent of school leaders are reducing the hours of teaching assistants and 31 per cent said they were reducing staff hours.

The NAHT’s annual Breaking Point survey showed that 72 per cent of school budgets will be untenable in two years’ time. This is a result of the government’s choice to freeze spending and keep it at 2010 levels for each pupil. The 2010 cash isn’t going as far as it used to. You can’t expect it to. But the government is flatly refusing to admit the reality.

Added to these concerns is the new requirement that at GCSE, 90 per cent of pupils must study the subjects specified in the EBacc. In a survey of NAHT secondary members, 79 per cent said that the EBacc policy has already had a negative impact on the breadth of the curriculum in their school.

So what about solutions? Well we do have a General Election coming up, which means parents, teachers and school leaders all have a chance to accept or reject the current direction of travel. The NAHT has outlined five key priorities which it hopes will be adopted by candidates in the forthcoming campaign:

  • Fund education fully and fairly.
  • Put forward a national strategy for teacher recruitment and retention.
  • Adopt fair methods to hold schools to account.
  • Value a broad range of subjects in the school day.
  • Make sure that schools are supported by health and social care services.

These priorities are part of our on-going work to put forward a credible alternative to the current narrative, crowding out short-term political interference – and hopefully, the storm consequences that go with it.


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