Voices: Want to know what’s really going on in England’s schools? Look beyond the gates

And so it came to pass that there was, in fact, a magic money tree. After weeks and weeks of briefing that the national coffers were completely empty, the chancellor stood up last week and pulled a rabbit out of his hat.

School funding, we were told, was going to go up, and not down, and headteachers would be able to heat their schools, employ their teaching assistants and maintain the supply of pens and paper into the classroom after all.

Depending on how you measure it, public sector spending (at least for 5-16 schools) is due to keep up with inflation, or something close to it. The worse predictions, many of which were informed by stuff that emerged from Jeremy Hunt’s Treasury itself, did not come to pass. School staff and parents could breathe a sigh of relief.

And all of that is correct. But only to a point. Yes, the money coming through the school gates from the government is perhaps better than expected, but, no, teachers are most certainly not sitting back and lighting a metaphorical cigar.

Things, for many, many schools are really, really hard. The reason? Because of what’s going on beyond the school gates.

I speak to teaching professionals a lot in my job and I am hearing, more and more, that they are struggling to keep up with the increasingly febrile atmosphere in the places that their schools call home. This is even more pronounced in the most deprived communities.

As the cost of living climbs and inflation rockets, parents and their children are getting poorer, and people are getting angrier. More broken homes, more joblessness, more desperation.

This manifests itself in schools like this: young people turning up not ready to learn because they are hungry; poorer behaviour among the students, who often take out their frustrations at home once in classroom; more transient families resulting in absences, interrupted learning and an endless need to help students catch up.

All the while the support services, those that are traditionally provided by local authorities, continue to dwindle thanks to a decade-plus of cuts. These include the services that are provided to schools to help those students who are need extra help, and the services that are supposed to support young people and families beyond the school gates such as CAMHS (children’s and adolescent mental health services).

In many places these have close to disappeared.

And it is schools and teachers who have to pick up the pieces. This is not as simple as teachers having to mop a few brows and a supportive word here or there, this really means school staff having to engage in things for which they are woefully underqualified and under-prepared.

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This means teachers attempting to deal with profound behavioural and psychological problems that really ought to be the preserve of other professionals. This means teachers and heads being distracted from the business for which they are trained: teaching and learning. This means teachers and TAs and school leaders being burnt out by a moral obligation to help – one that they didn’t choose but cannot refuse.

And, readers will hardly need reminding, this all comes in the shadow of the mental health crisis brought on by Covid and its associated lockdowns (new Sutton Trust research this week illustrated the scale of the problem) – and the failure of the government to properly fund its own Covid pandemic education catch up programme.

And so, yes, Rishi Sunak and Hunt can pat themselves on the back. And, yes, they can tell themselves that their clever managing of the public finances means that the school funding outlook is better than it might have been.

But, no, that does not mean that schools and communities and young people are not on their knees.