Controversial government plans that promise increased funding for education, more free schools and a crackdown on pupil behaviour have been greeted with a mixture of scepticism and outrage by those working in the sector.
The measures, revealed in a confidential briefing document seen by the Guardian, received a lukewarm response from school leaders. They said any additional funding was welcome, but that the £3.5bn on offer was nowhere
There was also widespread alarm about proposals for a package of disciplinary measures, including a renewed emphasis on exclusions and support for the use of “reasonable force” to improve behaviour in schools.
Jules White, a headteacher who has played a key role in the Worth Less? campaign for more money for schools, said the government should come clean on funding. “Heads will not be hoodwinked by a large-sounding number that in fact merely covers rising costs in areas such as employer pensions and higher pupil numbers,” he said.
“We are not mugs and will only be influenced by what is right for schools and families rather than any short-term political motives.” He said special educational needs (SEN) alone would require a multibillion commitment to put right the wrongs of the past.
Dr Mary Bousted, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said the promised money fell far short of the additional £12.6bn schools and colleges would need by 2022-23 to address the funding crisis.
“Obviously any extra money for schools will be welcome because schools are desperate for funding,” she said. “The problem is this just isn’t enough.”
A Guardian callout to readers working in education attracted a similar response.
“Being in education for as long as I have has taught me to be pretty sceptical about these announcements about extra money,” said one chair of trustees for a multi-academy trust in eastern England. “By the time it’s passed through various filters and arrives at our door, it looks considerably different to what you were expecting from the original announcement.”
The educational psychologist Dr Dan O’Hare spoke for many when he expressed grave concerns about the government’s tough new line on behaviour. “Behaviour for children and young people is a form of communication,” he said. “Children have a reason for demonstrating the behaviours they do. We should be trying to find out the reasons rather than just disciplining them.”
Others responded with outrage to the government’s apparent green light for more exclusions. William Muir, the writer-in-residence at HMP Parc in Bridgend, said: “As someone who has worked in prison for almost nine years, a common history shared by a lot of men is exclusion from mainstream education.
“We should be actively promoting policies and funding to keep young people in mainstream education as much as possible when they are young, vulnerable and susceptible to criminal influences. This isn’t do-gooding, it’s common sense.”
The potential impact of the government’s plans on teaching assistants (TAs) was also an area of concern. The leaked document revealed that the Treasury and No 10 believe there are too many, and that they are not effectively deployed.
Rob Webster, an associate professor at the UCL institute of education, who has done extensive research on the role of TAs, said: “Cutting the number of TAs creates much bigger problems not very far down the line. We’ve built our systems of support for children with special educational needs around the employment of these people in schools. TAs are like the mortar in the brickwork. They are what is holding the school together in a way that does not often get seen.”
Donna Spicer, a TA for 18 years, said budget cuts had resulted in TA roles being axed in schools across the borough of Greenwich in south-east London, where she works – like elsewhere in England – and the impact was already being felt by pupils and staff.
A single secondary school in her borough has lost 19 support staff,” she said. “It has a massive impact on schools. Pupils who need one-to-one support are left behind without extra support and it’s the teachers who then struggle – it’s particularly difficult for newly qualified teachers who are struggling anyway.”