December 1, 2023

Isle of Wight Observer News

The Island's favourite newspaper

QUIGGERS: The Tory-made crisis in our schools

3 min read

I’m standing in this week because following Labour’s huge, majority-overturning wins in Tamworth and Mid Beds, DH is busy writing a list of Tory seats that are no longer safe. You can fill in the blanks.

You may have seen (probably haven’t) the Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Keegan took a day off from doing “a good f**king job” and added the Isle of Wight to her autumn tour dates, visiting on October 13. She was invited by the Alliance administration in August, but didn’t respond. Presumably they had to save up to afford the ferry travel.

Apparently, the local Conservative party are now concerned about literacy rates on the Island, the only solution they could think of was to invite Gillian to visit. Anyone sensible has been concerned for over ten years, but it’s nice to see them catch up. Her visit was an opportunity for local Conservatives and MP, Bob Seely, to tell her that the Island has been let down by previous Conservative councils; they botched schools reorganisation and 13 years of a Tory government reduced state school funding to its lowest level in a decade. Well, I may have paraphrased, but you get my drift.

The issue of school place planning (pupils per school) was also highlighted to Mrs Keegan. Who is now fully aware that the population of school-aged children is falling in all years (except a blip due in 2027) and will continue to do so. With school funding as it is, this presents a very real problem; there are now over 300 excess primary school places on the Island, meaning some schools are operating with very tiny class sizes. Sounds ideal, but I’ve been lucky enough to spend time with a group of primary school heads over the last few weeks. A very talented and passionate group they are too. They highlighted a few things, firstly, the issue of place planning and falling pupil numbers was first highlighted in 2018. Yes, five years ago. Secondly, small class sizes (some less than ten pupils) aren’t great for pupil outcomes; they also aren’t great for school budgets as schools are paid per pupil (£4,557 at primary and £5,859 at secondary, per year, which is below the English average of £4,674 and £6,000). With correct class sizes, there is almost enough money to do extra stuff; with tiny class sizes there isn’t, you end up in deficit and schools face closure through a lack of financial viability.

The other thing the heads pointed out was they’ve done all the hard work on what falling pupil numbers mean. It means there aren’t enough children to keep all of our primary schools open, in fact in keeping them open, we do our children a disservice and risk losing schools due to them running out of money, rather than a managed closure.

As a politician, the idea of closing schools makes me feel physically sick, but as a parent, when presented with the overwhelming evidence of pupil numbers falling, short of a mammoth baby boom or the over-65s (the largest growing age group on the Island) wanting to sit on small chairs and do finger painting, it’s obvious we have little choice.

Heads tell me the upsides are improved outcomes, such as literacy, difficulty in recruiting teachers is alleviated and we start to shape our schools around our children, rather than spreadsheets. It’s not easy, but as one head said, let’s celebrate the previous achievements of the schools that close, rather than mourn them.

The best thing Gillian Keegan could have done for literacy, was stay in Westminster, donate the cost of her trip to an IW literacy charity and commit to increasing funding. Our children deserve better.

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