6th October 2021
We are at our desks on this first Wednesday of October, reeling from the gap between the Prime Minister’s words this morning and the reality experienced by so many across the country. Even the libertarian think tank the Adam Smith Institute has called Johnson’s speech ‘bombastic but vacuous and economically illiterate’.
The government has pivoted from denying any supply chain crisis or rise in the cost of living a few weeks ago to now claiming that these are painful short-term necessities for transforming Britain to a high wage, high skill economy. The Prime Minister made only two policy announcements in his speech – tougher sentences for eco-activists; £3000 for Maths and Science teachers who move to work in disadvantaged areas. The second isn’t new: it’s the relaunching of a scrapped policy from 2019, and might simply be a shifting of the dwindling pool of STEM teachers across the map. The rest was rhetoric, red meat, and painful humour.
Meanwhile, most significantly, the most disadvantaged families woke up today to find themselves up to £1000 a year poorer with the scrapping of the Universal Credit top up, as the cost of living itself continues to rise. All done by a chancellor who is purportedly worth £200 million and wears £2000 cashmere hoodies to look like a man of the people.
Coop Schools is here for our members, and we apologise to any of you concerned that this email is too overtly political. Nonetheless, we have to stand by our values, and the fact is that this government’s supposed levelling up agenda is removing any slim security the poorest in our society have, by making them poorer. Cooperatives believe in directly addressing equity, and this is most certainly not that.
The challenge for the most vulnerable in our country continues to grow, and the challenge for schools does too. We’ve had conversations with a number of Heads this week who either kept or quickly reintroduced COVID protocols across their sites, having little faith in the ‘back to normal’ messaging, or experiencing their own autumn waves of infection. Unions are now calling for stricter mitigations to be back in place across the sector. 2.5% of pupils were off school last week due to confirmed or suspected COVID infections, alongside an even larger percentage of secondary age pupils who are persistently absent.
In this febrile atmosphere, last week’s news of what to expect in the forthcoming Education White Paper was not well received. The possible return of Key Stage Three SATs, the removal of the national cap on teachers’ working hours, greater powers for Ofsted were three of the ‘treats’ shared. In his own conference speech, Nadim Zahawi rightly drew attention to the importance of literacy and numeracy, but we know that the funding for learning recovery is limited. The catch up tsar Sir Kevan Collins resigned in June after the government announced less than 10% of the funding Sir Kevan and his team identified as the minimum required to restore standards to pre-pandemic levels.
It’s a tough time to work in education, which is why it’s so remarkable that we have such brilliant and inspiring conversations with our members, and gain insights into what they are doing for the young people they serve. From new Cooperative Foundation Trusts coming to life, to Trusts working across a city to support schools facing challenges, to improvement plans that focus on the powers of collaboration and solidarity, rather than competition, the cooperative education sector, small but mighty, continues to be a beacon for best practice. This week, we’ve had conversations with leaders in Kent, Southampton, Lancashire, Birmingham, Derbyshire, and Surrey. All mention the challenges; all emphasise the importance of the work for their communities and young people.
At the end of last academic year, we spoke about Agency, Community, and Trust being the key themes for our work this year. New Trusts are emerging as they take agency and protect themselves from locally specific academisation threats. Concern for community is a cooperative principle. Our Cooperative Trusts answer to and represent their communities, and are focused on improving their specific worlds in concrete and meaningful ways. And the importance of trust – from and between governance to staff to students to partners to caregivers – is shaped by the values and principles we have all signed up to.
We are proud that our sector continues to grow, and that in spite of everything, the work you do this academic year will be something to be proud of. Thank you.