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Rachel Younger, school business leader and NAHT president

This weekend, Rachel Younger will take to the stage in front of hundreds of school leaders as the first president-elect in NAHT’s 127-year history, who is not, and has never been, a headteacher.

Given the worsening financial storm in schools, perhaps it’s apt for the union to be fronted by someone with first-hand experience of managing those overstretched budgets.

Younger, will be introduced as the incoming president at the union’s annual conference in Wales today. As NAHT’s most senior elected lay person, Younger will chair its national executive, annual conference and AGM.

She faces an unenviable task: highlighting the myriad of challenges which are causing school staff to quit in droves, while also not presenting such a bleak view of school life that it deters others from joining.

“But you’ve got to keep raising the issues, because we’re trying to make things better”, says Younger, who is also the union’s Blackpool branch secretary.

Rachel Younger NAHT president

‘We’re good at making efficiencies’

NAHT, which currently has 49,000 members, was founded in 1897 and became the National Association of Head Teachers, from which its name derives, in 1906.

For most of its history membership was restricted to headteachers, with assistant heads only admitted from 2000.

Younger believes there’s still a “misconception” that NAHT only represents headteachers.

For the last seven years she’s juggled her day job as business leader at St Nicholas Church of England Primary School, in Blackpool, with her NAHT roles.

She says being a school business leader has given her “unique insight into the impact of over a decade of austerity, the funding cuts on schools and the tough decisions they must make every single day”.

Because most of a school’s budget goes on staffing costs, that gets trimmed first when school leaders are expected to “make efficiencies”, as DfE calls it.

“People like me, that’s our job… we’re really good at making efficiencies,” Younger says. “But they only got so far. When you’re talking about people’s livelihoods, it’s awful and it shouldn’t have to happen.”

At her NAHT North West regional meetings, Younger hears more instances of staffing restructures linked to funding – most commonly of support assistants, but also senior leadership teams, which Younger gets involved with as a branch caseworker.

A recent survey by The Sutton Trust showed 32 per cent of school leaders reported making cuts to teaching staff, 69 per cent to teaching assistants and 46 per cent to support staff.

“Often it’s the children with the highest needs that really suffer because [you lose] the people who give those children the support they need.”

Rachel Younger at her school in Blackpool

The transformative power of education

Younger attributes her strong work ethic to her mum, who raised her and her older brother in Pudsey, West Yorkshire, while also undertaking a range of jobs and evening college courses.

Coming from a family of manual workers, Younger’s mum was “determined to do something different”. After getting a degree and PGCE, she became a college English lecturer.

Younger describes her as the “key inspiring factor in my life, in terms of that transformative power of education”.

The best teacher Younger ever knew was her junior school headteacher Mr Mason, who “knew not just every child’s name, but treated each child as special and imparted that sense of belonging”.

She reflects on how those relationships are less common these days with higher staff turnaround in schools, with increased reliance on supply agencies.

Younger initially had her sights on becoming a doctor. But halfway through her biological science degree she realised “it wasn’t for me” and moved back in with her mum, then living in Blackpool, to “regroup”.

She believes it’s “really challenging as a teenager to decide what you want to do for the rest of your life”.

Her advice to her son these days is, “it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you do something – if it doesn’t work out, try something else.”

Younger embarked on “character forming” work as a waitress at a pizza parlour, then at a more upmarket restaurant.

Younger’s mum was then in a job training councillors, and Younger got a job with her at the counselling centre’s office, running the website, as well as receptionist and office duties.

‘Doing a bit of everything’

By then she had a son and in 2003 moved into a role at his village primary school, Yealand, as an office administrator. She stayed four years at the 40-pupil school, and “absolutely loved” how it was “at the centre of that community”.

After persuading the headteacher to let her take a new qualification in 2007, the then fully-funded bursar development programme, she became business manager at Blackpool’s Baines endowed Church of England Primary School.

Moving to a school with nearly 500 pupils taught her that “you can still retain a family feel in a large primary with a nurturing environment”.

Blackpool’s high levels of deprivation meant the school had “challenges”, but held a vital role as a “safe place” for children.

It was attached to a Sure Start children’s centre, which “brought families together who wouldn’t otherwise have that safe space to meet”.

The loss of such centres means that “families are often quite disconnected in society… the only place they can come now for help is school.”

Younger took on the business manager role at St Nicholas in 2010, when it was expanding from a one to two form entry school.

She also became an NAHT branch official. When the union formed sector councils in 2013, she sat on its inaugural school business leader council, and became regional president in 2018.

Child poverty

Each incoming president nominates a partner charity. Younger chose Buttle UK, which supports young people in crisis because child poverty is an issue close to her heart.

She sees first-hand the cost-of-living crisis impact on school budgets, and hears of colleagues “helping with uniform costs, setting up food banks, in some cases delivering food parcels to families and routinely washing children’s clothes”.

A University of Bristol study found there are now more school-based foodbanks than regular ones.

Meanwhile, capital funding, which has shrunk to a “tiny amount…not enough to paper over the cracks in the wall, never mind fix the cracks”, is also “keeping [school leaders] awake at night”.

She praises them for being “good at dealing with crises”, but it’s “not right” that some are having to fundraise locally now for essential items.

Another concern is the high needs funding system being “absolutely in crisis”.

There are “system changes that could be made”. Younger’s school is near the border with Lancashire, and many of its pupils live there rather than Blackpool. The two councils have “different formulas and application processes for how they distribute that high needs money, and different teams dealing with it.”

The dichotomy means a child with the same needs in Blackpool would “probably get a different amount” than in Lancashire.

Younger would love to see the processes standardised nationally.

She would also love to see the myriad of school funding pots “streamlined” because “administratively it’s far more complicated than it needs to be”.

Rachel Younger at her school in Blackpool

Ofsted

Frustration over the government’s rejection of calls to scrap Ofsted single word judgements is also likely to hang over the upcoming NAHT conference.

Education unions are pinning their hopes on the outcome of Ofsted’s “Big Listen” consultation to spark meaningful change.

“It’s clear that single-word judgments are outdated, and we now need to see significant reform,” says Younger.

At last year’s conference, as anger mounted over the pressures of the inspection regime in the wake of headteacher Ruth Perry’s death, her sister Professor Julia Waters called on school leaders who also work as inspectors to “hand in your badges”.

Did the sector respond? The inspectorate said that 333 additional inspectors left between April last year and last month (one in seven). But it took on 427 new inspectors in that time.

Younger described what happened to Perry as “heartbreaking. The current Ofsted inspection regime casts a dark shadow over everyone working in the school community.”

Last year’s conference was also dominated by the threat of strike action. That was eventually taken off the table, after the government made a 6.5 per cent pay rise offer and 85 per cent of NAHT’s members voted to accept the deal.

But it highlighted to Younger the “power of the collective”, which is why she got involved in NAHT in the first place.

“It’s that feeling of strength and togetherness…we stand together and can achieve amazing things.”

Younger’s proudest career moment so far was finding out last year she’d been elected NAHT’s vice president at a national executive meeting in Exeter, surrounded by “colleagues and lots of hugs”.

Today, Younger is “excited and humbled” about becoming NAHT president, and “ready” for the challenge.

But after 21 years of working in schools, and all the challenges, she isn’t in a hurry to give it up.

Schools are “genuinely amazing, special places to work. That’s why we keep coming back year after year.”

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