Putting food on the table

Written by: Dr Bernard Trafford | Published:
Dr Bernard Trafford, head, Royal Grammar School, Newcastle

In the current drive for ‘efficiency savings’ in education, Dr Bernard Trafford warns that we risk forgetting schools’ vital role in the local economy and local life

November 24 was designated “stamp out casual contract day of action” by the University and College Union, which represents academic lecturers. An investigation by the Guardian revealed that, among universities, the 24 members of the prestigious Russell Group rely heavily on academics working on insecure contracts.

The Guardian has uncovered a world where significant numbers of academics work on precarious and parsimonious terms. Vice-chancellors might argue it is the only way to make ends meet: everyone in education, from nursery to university, is short of money.

Rationing is everywhere, and efficiency is today’s mantra. At school level, multi-academy trusts (MATs), which control chains of academies, boast economy of scale. It’s more efficient to have one superhead directing operations in a number of schools.

A MAT can have a single central HR and finance department, and can move teachers between schools entirely legally if their standard contract says so.

Elsewhere, we hear plenty of stories about teaching assistants who are paid on term-time only contracts. Why stop there? Catering or cleaning staff, if not already contracted-out, generally work term-time-only: why not put them on zero-hours contracts? One can imagine the temptation to do the same with teachers in minority subjects.

The obsession with efficiency (and “efficiency-savings”) leaves me deeply uneasy. When efficiency is king, we risk viewing the employment our institutions provide merely as a transaction, forgetting that it provides a living. Wherever the money comes from to fund them – from government local or national, or from individual parents, according to their status and sector – schools are rooted in a neighbourhood and channel money into their local economy.

The employment they provide puts the food on people’s tables: slashing jobs or pay to reduce expenditure removes it. For institutions constantly to seek “efficiencies”, while refusing to acknowledge the cost to those who depend on them for employment, seems to me morally inexcusable.

Schools are communities, and are firmly embedded within the wider community: a school contributes huge sums to its local and regional economy in the salaries it pays and in the services it buys.

Indeed, in 2014 the Independent Schools Council (ISC) produced a report on the sector’s contribution to the economy, the Independent Schools Economic Impact Report (http://bit.ly/2glYJDL).

Using the assessment tool the ISC produced, we calculated that my independent school paid nearly £7 million in salaries in 2014, thus feeding the local economy. To the Exchequer we were paying more than £2 million in income taxes, National Insurance and VAT, while to local suppliers and services we contributed more than £4 million. We reckoned we put some £12 million into the economy, locally and nationally.

Perhaps society needs to choose which altar it wants to worship at. Should we continue to sacrifice people’s livings and wellbeing on the altar of efficiency and cost-saving? Or should we instead enshrine an attitude of remembering that the significant running costs of education provide livings, welfare and indeed hope in our communities.

Obsessed with efficiency, we risk forgetting the benefit that our expenditure spreads. If we keep our eyes firmly fixed on the balance-sheet, I fear we may next lose sight of what and who our schools exist for.

  • Dr Bernard Trafford is head of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School and a former chairman of HMC. His views are personal. Follow him @bernardtrafford


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