January 16, 2017 at 02:51AM

The last few weeks have been all about the NHS crisis, but new figures published today reveal the stark cash situation facing schools in England. Forty nine out of 50 schools, according to research by the Association of School and College Leaders and the Secondary Heads Association, will see a real-term per pupil funding fall between now and 2020; some schools lose up to 17% of their per pupil funding. That is the sharpest cut to schools’ budgets since the 1970s. The scale of today’s problem was illustrated last month by the National Audit Office, which showed the average secondary academy is in the red by more than £350,000.

Education lacks the immediate warning lights of health: hospitals being forced to divert ambulances, cancel cancer operations and treat patients on trolleys in corridors. But these funding pressures are no less damaging than those facing the health service. They jeopardise the significant progress made in recent decades: nine out of 10 schools are now rated as good or outstanding. Without a sensible settlement inequalities will widen. Most notably, there is huge geographic imbalance in school quality. Children living in London have a far better chance of attending a good school than in Liverpool, where almost half of schools are inadequate or “require improvement”. In the northern powerhouse of Manchester the figure is one in three. This is a fundamental issue for social mobility.

Learning is not a matter of chance. A critical ingredient is the quality of school leadership and teaching. Yet there is a national headteacher shortage and a teacher recruitment crisis. Some of the areas facing big cuts in per-pupil funding are those that are already struggling with school quality and which find it hardest to attract quality leaders and staff. What seems obvious to all is that the government’s schools improvement policy is floundering. This is partly because it is built on a market-based set of principles that lack oversight, transparency and accountability. The basic idea is that poor-performing schools would be taken over by high-performing multi-academy trusts: educational jargon for private – in this case charitable – organisations running chains of schools. But it is not clear whether there are enough high-performing trusts in the market. The last chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, raised doubts about the quality and performance of the largest academy chains last year. The worry is plain: there simply aren’t enough good large trusts to take on failing schools.

So there is a real risk that inadequate schools will be left to languish for years, with disastrous and lifelong consequences for the children who attend them. Ofsted has only recently started inspecting academy trusts as a whole, and the government lacks a strategy to improve poorly performing academy trusts. With no data available, this is a huge deficiency in its vision for schools, which is predicated on multi-academy trusts acting as the engine to drive up standards across the school system. Moreover, the government’s wrong-headed reforms have dismantled local democratic oversight of the school system – despite claiming to be in favour of devolution. Local councils’ roles in overseeing the delivery of education have been eroded to almost nothing. Instead, accountability sits between governors of academy trusts – many of whom are lay volunteers – and just eight regional schools commissioners appointed by the education secretary, each responsible for thousands of schools.

Ministers risk replicating the disaster of their NHS reforms in the educational shakeup: wasting time and energy on a structural reform while cutting back on cash and failing to attract talent. Instead of coming up with political wheezes such as grammar schools, it should focus on what’s going wrong with its current reforms. The government might argue that it can’t afford more cash. But it cannot defend the irrational and unverifiable schemes it is currently implementing.

from Education | The Guardian http://ift.tt/2iuD6Tr