New school term, new calendar year: what will it bring?

Bernard Trafford, Headmaster, RGS Newcastle

We already know what is on the agenda. There’s the whole of the Green Paper, Schools that work for everyone: and there’s a new boss at OFSTED, pledged to working with us to improve schools (well, that’s what she said!). We’re still phasing in new exams at GCSE and A level, and it’s anyone’s guess how much or little chaos will ensue in that quarter. And all of this is set against a backdrop of funding cuts in state schools.

There is, of course, the promise of a national (fair) funding formula: but, even if areas like the North East get a better deal, there still won’t be enough money to go round. Government cuts are biting deep, schools are hurting and it’s children who get the raw deal. Not only children, though: it’s a rough time for those who give their lives and careers to education and receive a lousy deal from government in return.

Our spirits might have lifted a little when we heard that Theresa May announced a new focus on mental health. She promised that, in 2017, teachers in a third of secondary schools will receive Mental Health First Aid Training. Something’s better than nothing, of course: but there’s nothing specific on the money for that training, nor any idea of how many members of staff in each school will be trained. Then there’s the bizarre idea that the need is only in secondary schools: primary colleagues across the North-East know the issues are almost as numerous and certainly as pressing in younger children as in adolescents.

So there are plenty of issues on which we might wish to do battle with government. Given that even the mental health initiative seems to be a lightweight solution to a very heavyweight problem, we can be pleased that our own SCHOOLS NorthEast Mental Health Commission is getting down to work this month: perhaps some of our findings will render government better informed about the scale of the issues and difficulties to be faced, and the size of the response that is required.

We’re robust in the North East and accustomed to “speaking truth to power”: but power can be petulant. Over the years I’ve learned that, if you disagree too loudly with government, the door slams, and dialogue comes to an abrupt halt. I see nothing different in this current administration.

Indeed, perhaps there’s a warning to us in education from the PM’s response to doctors. The near-meltdown being experienced in A&E across the country is, according to policymakers, nothing to do with lack of resources: it’s all because those lazy GPs are closing up early. Patients unable to see their doctor they go to A&E, causing overload there and crisis.

I was interested to hear medics, the people who know how it works, identifying as one of the underlying causes the lack of care for elderly patients well enough to leave hospital but not to cope on their own at home.

But there’s no response from government. Merely a big stick threatening to hit GPs financially if they don’t move towards providing a seven-day service.

Medicine’s problem is arguably not education’s: but the two are analogous. This government isn’t just looking for a “hard Brexit”: it’s planning hard-nosed dealings with health and education services alike. There’s a job for SCHOOLS NorthEast to do, certainly: we must keep being honest and forceful about the problems and make our demands of government coherently and rationally.

I once had a boss who boasted that his door was open to anyone who wanted to talk to him. The problem was, we said, that there was an open door, but a closed mind. The same’s true of government at present.

Fortunately schools exist on a huge fund of dedication and optimism: but both may wear thin if government doesn’t wake up soon. I’m not gloomy, not completely despondent: but I think this year will be tough going.

Have a good one!


Bernard Trafford is head of the independent Royal Grammar School, Newcastle upon Tyne, a Trustee of SCHOOLS NorthEast and a former Chairman of HMC.


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