Tipping Point


I wrote this blog piece at the beginning of October but decided not to post it for a number of reasons but mostly because I don’t believe that moaning gets the job done. When times are tough my mum and dad taught me to roll up my sleeves, get my head down and work harder. In my experience, this normally works. However, as we approach the Christmas season, having been to more conferences and Head’s meetings, it is clear that things are not getting better. Kingston Heads have agreed to work together to address our concerns and the ‘post that never was’ is pertinent to that discussion. If some of the references seem a little out of time you will appreciate why……

Blog Post October 2016

“Challoner Day” traditionally, in my mind, marks the end of the beginning of the new school year. However, before I move on it is only right and proper to praise and thank everyone involved. Our students once again demonstrated why we are so proud of them, the choir were superb, the readers wonderful and the organisation of the whole day ran like a military operation without the steel toed boots. As an introduction to our school for new students, staff and parents it sets the tone for the year ahead and is part of the bedrock on which we build our values and expectations.

Once Challoner Day is over the hard work really begins and students and staff get their heads down for the long term ahead. Lessons are in full swing, first assessments are being written and marked, sports fixtures are starting to pile up, rehearsals and auditions are underway and open evenings loom clearly on the horizon.

In so many ways school life is up and running with all its energy, vibrancy, challenges and dilemmas. Lessons are taught, events go on and everything runs as it should (mostly).

My nagging fear at the moment is that all this good work, all this endeavour, all this shared collaboration by students, staff and parents masks a crisis that is happening in education across the country.

The “problem” is that no school, no teacher, wants to let their children fail or their standards or expectations drop. So teachers strive harder, support staff plug gaps and leaders try to sleep at night whilst trying to solve a problem that is not of their making.

At every Headteachers’ meeting I attend of local Heads, Catholic Heads and National Heads, the mood music is the same; we all love children; we are all passionate about their future and providing them with the very best; we are all utterly despondent and dismayed about finance and teacher recruitment.

At open evening I made one political point; if those in power do not solve the funding crisis and teacher recruitment crisis then our schools will be in very real trouble – not in ten years’ time – but in one or two!

One local Head called the situation “a perfect storm” and he was quite right. Let’s put it simply:

  1. Four years of unfunded pay rises, NI contributions and incremental drift.
  2. Unfunded increased contributions to pensions for teachers and support staff.
  3. Cuts to all sorts of funding other than “per pupil funding” allowing a convenient and oft quoted line about school funding remaining “untouched”.
  4. Rushing through unplanned and poorly considered changes to GCSEs and A levels placing a ridiculous workload on teachers before specifications have even been finalised.
  5. Changing the benchmark, often mid -year, on how schools are judged.
  6. Leaving teacher training in a confusing mess of different pathways and bursaries for some and nothing for others.
  7. Teacher recruitment being overtaken by unscrupulous agencies who will plug schools for every penny and coach new recruits to squeeze them for increments before a lesson has even been taught.

It’s a bleak and grim picture and none of the fault can be placed at the door of schools, teachers or school leaders. In fact, the reason that the whole system hasn’t imploded is because of deeply passionate, committed and incredibly hard working teachers and leaders in our schools.

However, it is not sustainable.

Education is at a tipping point and we have to stand up and say enough is enough or all our children will suffer.

When running activities on Scout Camps I occasionally played the game where scouts had to pour water into a pipe with holes drilled in it. The idea was to fill the pipe with enough water to get a ping pong ball to float to the top. Keeping the water supply a distance from the pipe tricked most scouts into thinking that it was a race to get enough water into the pipe that would enable them to get the ball to the top. In reality they had to work together to plug the gaps with their fingers whilst also racing to fill the pipe. When they did this together, working as a team, they achieved their goal. However, I was always conscious to not make the distance too far or the holes too many. Success was always a challenge but achievable with hard work, enthusiasm, good spirit and team work.

One parent recently wrote to me after our open evening to tell me what her son said when he came home having helped for the evening.

Standing in our kitchen after open evening my son said “I heard a group of boys talking outside the gym. They were saying “wow, this school is amazing I hope I get in here”, I’m not sure what I felt Mum, but my heart was really proud to be at Challoner and I thought I’m already here, I’m part of this, it is great”.

I don’t think the mum who emailed this to school realised how much it moved me because this is exactly how we want everyone involved in our school community, our Challoner family, to feel.

My concern is that I see us working together as a community, I see us rushing to fill the pipe, I see us plugging the gaps together but what happens when you can run no further and run out of hands to plug the last hole? How do we maintain what we have worked so hard for and are rightly proud of?

The reason there isn’t a fuss is because schools don’t make a fuss. They focus on the job in hand, they focus on providing the best for their students with love and compassion and commitment.

It’s time policy makers stopped playing political games, stopped feeding half-truths to the media and started listening to those of us who are at the chalk face and care passionately about our children and their future.

Sean Maher
19th November 2016