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The frontline: Heads reveal poverty, abuse and funding woes

Politicians who have “sidelined” schools to instead play up populist issues must “raise their game out of the gutter of smears, misdirection, and the creation of division to simply win a vote”, Paul Whiteman has said.

The NAHT boss urged ministers to instead put forward a “transformative” vision for education, on a par with the creation of the National Health Service by Nye Bevan 76 years ago.

“Who will promise an education settlement that goes beyond talking big, and delivers great things for the future of the nation?”

Here’s your Schools Week round-up of the big talking points from leaders at the conference …

Head spat on amid ‘disturbing level’ of parent abuse

North-east school leaders have launched a “no excuse to abuse” campaign after facing “bullying” and “harassment” from parents – with one leader reporting having been spat on. 

Trust leader Debra de Muschamp, the Sunderland branch secretary, said complaints have taken on “a more sinister complexion” and threats from some parents and carers have reached “a disturbing level”. 

 Leaders are considering leaving the profession due to the toll it has taken on their mental health, she said. 

 Threats range from reporting the school to Ofsted to “personally abusive” remarks such as “you’re a disgrace” and “I’m going to have your job”.

 “All of this is often in a public space in front of other families and children, with nowhere to turn and no-one to protect us. We’ve labelled this behaviour in Sunderland – it’s harassment, it’s bullying, it’s abuse.” 

de Muschamp

The campaign aims to help leaders seek support, encourage staff to report abuse through health and safety channels, and raise awareness.

 Her motion calling for the NAHT union to launch a national campaign on parental complaints was passed unanimously. 

Data from the survey tool Teacher Tapp last year showed the proportion of school staff who reported verbal abuse from parents or carers has risen from 28 per cent in 2020 to 36 per cent.

 Toni Dolan, of the Barnsley branch, said abuse happens on an “almost daily basis” in the form of “email, social media comments about the school and staff, telephone conversations and, more frighteningly, face to face”. 

 “If you told me nine years ago that I would be harassed, threatened, humiliated and, as of last month, now spat upon by parents and carers, I would never have believed it.”

 Julie Kelly, of the Hampshire branch, told the conference she had been referred to the Teacher Regulation Agency twice by “parents that are trying to get you” on spurious safeguarding complaints.

Malnutrition and mould: Schools on poverty front line

Schools are using their budgets to help families in poverty or fleeing domestic violence because of the housing crisis, heads have warned. 

Michael Henry, headteacher at Barley Lane Primary School in Redbridge, said schools are seeing children coming to school malnourished, with mice and rat bites and skin conditions due to mould in temporary housing.

 He said “family after family” have been served no-fault eviction notices.

 “A family of four in a hostel with shared bathroom facilities. The sound of rats running around in the walls, keeping them awake at night. The list goes on for me, and for many of us in the room.”

He told how a child and her mother, both victims of domestic violence, phoned the school from a bus shelter carrying all their belongings. They had moved from a refuge to hostels “with neither local authority involved taking responsibility”. 

 “We ended up paying for a hotel for the night, driving them there, and sourcing food and furniture when they were eventually re-housed.

 “We are expected to make significant provision out of our own school budgets and often staff pockets for pupils who are living in bed and breakfast hotels but arriving at school with no breakfast.”

Henry

Schools Week investigations have previously exposed how schools are having to fill the public services void. 

 Alison Francis, headteacher at Baginton Fields special school in Coventry, added: “We write off dinner debts, our staff buy food for students, we wash clothes because families can’t.”

 This year’s Programme for International Student Assessment league tables showed about one in 10 English youngsters skipped meals at least once a week because they didn’t have enough money – above the global average.

 A Unicef study found UK child poverty levels have leapt by about 20 per cent since 2012.

Budget squeeze penalises schools that retain experienced staff

The budget squeeze is unfairly penalising schools that are successful at retaining staff because they can no longer afford to keep experienced teachers on higher salaries, a head has warned.

David Huntingford, headteacher at William Ford School in east London, said staff want to stay at his school as he has created a culture that promotes mental health and a manageable workload. 

But it means that all but one of his teachers are on the upper pay scale, and he cannot set a balanced budget. 

Huntingford

Advice he has been given by the sector includes “reducing the number of experienced teachers and recruit younger, cheaper ones”. 

 “Really? Is that how we reward faithful service within the teaching profession? 

 “This is what keeps me up at night. The thought of having to set a balanced budget, not being able to do so, and the thought of having to look at colleagues, some of them who have spent 25 years in the school, and to tell them that they are now being made redundant because the funding is just not there.”

Department for Education statistics show that just 59 per cent of teachers remain in the profession a decade after qualifying – the lowest since records began in 2010. Ten years ago, that figure was more than 65 per cent.

‘Magnet’ SEND schools take financial hit

“Magnet” school headteachers have warned the system is creating a “perverse situation” where being inclusive for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) is penalising schools financially. 

Mark Sherwin-Peddie, headteacher at Beechwood Primary School in Luton, urged government to overhaul SEN funding arrangements. Mainstream schools must contribute the first £6,000 a year towards the costs of SEND provision. 

He said one local school, where the percentage of pupils with education, health and care plans was three times the local average, had “overspent by approaching £100,000 in a year” on their notional SEND funding.

“Meanwhile a similar school close by with few pupils with SEND receives the same notional funding and has a fraction of the costs associated with employing teaching assistants and so on.

 “This has created a perverse situation where success with pupils with SEND is penalising the [magnet] school financially.”

Sherwin Peddie

Roger Blackburn, headteacher at Ellenbrook Community Primary School in Salford, said they’ve become a “magnet school for specialist SEN provision which is very expensive and the gap in the funding is putting a massive pressure on everything we do”. 

A motion calling on government to overhaul the national funding arrangements for pupils with SEND – so that funding follows each child “in real time” rather than relying on notional funding – was passed unanimously. 

Head had to abandon hospital treatment after Ofsted call 

A headteacher claims she had to abandon getting her broken wrist cast at hospital because Ofsted refused to push back the initial 90-minute inspection phone call.

Lisa Darwood, headteacher at Selly Park Girls’ School in Birmingham, told conference how she was waiting in accident and emergency to have her wrist plastered when Ofsted called in 2022. 

The then ‘outstanding’ school had not been inspected in 12 years. Darwood’s colleague asked if Ofsted could push back the phone call with inspectors to allow her to get back to school – but they only offered a 30-minute delay, she said.

“I therefore left A&E with a broken wrist to get back to school. We did get downgraded to good but that wasn’t actually the issue. The treatment and how everybody felt on the two days of the inspection was just so heartbreaking.”

Jen Clarke, headteacher at Ripley Junior School in Derbyshire, said that while waiting for Ofsted to reinspect after a ‘requires improvement’ rating, she had a “massive heart attack” last summer.

heads
Clarke

“My cardiologist said he was certain that the stress from work along with other physical factors was the reason I had something called a spontaneous coronary artery dissection.”

Motions calling for a three-month time window for inspections, and employer guidance to support school leaders in dealing with Ofsted were passed unanimously.

An Ofsted spokesperson said it always aims to inspect “with professionalism, courtesy, empathy and respect. We want to keep improving.”

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