It’s that time of year when the consequences of trying to deliver our service within the available budget require difficult decisions to be made.
Maybe I’m just kidding myself but I still believe passionately in the value of education, that teaching and learning is at the core of what we do, and that caring for kids comes first, last and always. Yet the responsibilities of the job mean that people see me as the person who applies formulae and budget limits without reference to the needs of their particular school. “Surely he can’t care about kids if he’s not going to give us x”.
I received a letter from a teacher this week which kind of encapsulated this when the teacher described how they were going to withdraw from all authority work because of the efficiency savings we are implementing. The argument basically ran along the lines that my integrity must be called into question if I was prepared to implement the required savings. This is a great shame because this particular teacher has a huge amount to offer their colleagues throughout the authority.
Criticism like this hurts. We all like to be popular. Nobody likes to be charicatured as the unbending bureaucrat who will implement policy without reference to people’s feelings or needs.
I try – not always successfully – to rationalise this by telling myself that my key role in such circumstances is to treat people and schools with equity and respect. We have a duty to the public to deliver a high quality service within the resources available. No one in East Lothian would pat me on the back a year from now if we had an overspend of £3 million. I’ve seen the consequences of such overspends at first hand and believe me – I’d rather suffer the slings and arrows over the managed savings we are implementing this year, than see all the gains we have made in East Lothian education over the last decade decimated by a budget crisis a year from now.
I don’t envy your job! Like most parents, I’m waiting to see what class situation my Offspring will be in next year, and I guess it all comes back to…your decision. My response to those final decisions might be affected by knowing: Are you content with the budget you have? Do you feel it is ‘fair’ (whatever that means)? If you were not content, did you fight to improve it? Obvious questions, maybe, but they could help to give a very different picture…
Do you think that you would ever get to the withdrawing/resigning stage if you felt you were asked to implement a budget you felt was unjustified?
I think you are too kind to the teacher who wrote to you, Don. Being at the chalk-face does not excuse anyone from recognising the realities of public sector fundng and budgeting – a response such as the one you received is simply being selfish, no matter how much frustration might lie behind it. It’s too easy to take the moral high ground when you are not faced with the kinds of zero-sum decisions you and colleagues across the country are faced with at this time in the financial year.
We do need to be very careful about what we choose to label as efficiency savings to achieve these relatively short-term targets. Improving efficiency suggests eliminating activities that don’t add any educational value, or finding less costly ways to buy things we need. But there are examples where costs are having to be deferred to meet these targets, and we know from experience with school buildings, for example, that this creates a risk of storing up trouble for the future.
So whose job is it to say “If we make these cuts/efficiency savings, progress towards previously agreed targets cannot be made”? And whose job is it to change the demands made of schools, teachers and children in that case? In my experience, it’s Directors of Education and Heads of Service – no specific people intended here – who talk sagely about the realites of the budget, and all having to make difficult decisions, while at the same time making no concessions whatsoever on attainment demands and implementation of initiatives and paperwork and “results”. And also in my experience, it’s Head Teachers who inevitably take the brunt of this pressure.