I used to be a pastoral leader in a big secondary school, slap bang in what everyone used to describe as a ‘challenging context’. For all the reasons you will be familiar with and will understand, a high percentage of the children that came to our school had tricky times out of which they emerged a bit bruised and often weary. Our job was sometimes to patch them up, often to remind them of our expectations and usually to stand side by side with them, repeating quietly, ‘Not on my watch will you be failed by the school system’, ‘Not on my watch’.
Reflecting on those times, I realise now that I had the best balance of work and rejuvenation. My parents live in the South of France and so I would fly off for the Summer, Easter and Winter breaks to spend time with them and to decompress. What would ensue would bring me annoyingly back to earth. My partner would join my family in a well-meaning ridiculing of the acronyms, the politics and the self-importance of my stories about the school system. I would be reminded that it wasn’t only in schools that the good stuff was happening and that people were working outside of that space as well. I would refuse to give up my position but would eventually soften into the decompression, let go of the stress, gain perspective and ease into my holiday.
One memorable Christmas, it didn’t work. I had spent the first term immersed in a new project, the expansion of our pastoral offer and the set up of an Alternative Provision within the school. We had successfully transferred a number of challenging children into the provision and we were already proving popular with the Local Authority and other schools.
It was on this basis that a Year 9 girl came to us. Her life story was a big and troubled one and she brought this massive irascible personality into our provision of mainly boys. She was hot-headed and at once sweet, super sensitive with a big love of the animal kingdom but with quite a few hard edges that we brushed up against regularly. Everyone in the team grew really fond of her and, over the course of that term, the journey of her life became one that we all felt compelled to change the course of. ‘Not on my watch’, we would repeat, ‘Not on my watch’.
The bureaucratic failures of the care system got in the way of some pretty sensible choices that could have been made that winter to enable this girl to have a marginally better time of things. And as the Christmas holidays approached, I found it difficult to rationalise her situation but the situations of so many of the young people with whom we worked.
As I flew out of Bristol Airport on my way to my Christmas break with family , I burst into tears. I cried for the ones left behind while I went off to the close bosom of family. I cried because despite all efforts I was not making a difference. I cried because everyone on the plane was about to do something lovely and so many of the kids that were at my school were not. It was one of those days when I gave in and almost gave up. I gave in to the belief that I was not making a difference.
I haven’t thought about that moment of crisis for a while. I picked myself up and kept on fighting the good fight. But I have been reminded of it lately and I don’t appreciate it.
When we heard, just before the summer holiday the extent of the budget cuts to higher needs funding we were pretty much floored. The changes to the way on which finding is allocated had already, in one swoop, made sure that my school, with a skeleton infrastructure, had to plan to lose out on vital SENCO resource and bear the cost implication of having a staff member out for days on end applying for top-up funding.
For a school like ours in which the school population contains a higher than average percentage of pupils with additional needs, almost exclusively without an EHCP and often without any allocated funding, we have been assuming the cost burden of providing the essential support that they need.
These are the children that will get left behind if we don’t act and I can’t help feeling what is being relied upon in this current climate is the evident moral purpose that educators within the system carry. The seam of gold that is tucked deep within schools that are struggling, are staff who do this because they can’t not. This can be counted on, and this enables devastating funding cuts to be driven through.
Because of course, school leaders and dedicated school staff will keep going, they will keep advocating for the children in the communities within which they live and work, they will not fly off on that metaphorical jet plane. I can’t leave the children behind and yet the silk purse that I am being forced to sew in no way matches the ambitions for the provision I would want to have for them.
The most needy in our society have already been disadvantaged; in their lives outside school, essential services have been stripped from communities, ensuring that most families are in fact, islands. Social care, mental health support teams, bereavement counselling and rape crisis teams have been so diminished that the signposting role of schools has all but disappeared.
The ‘within the school gates we are solely about aspiration’, high expectations and that ‘not on my watch’ mantra are difficult to achieve when in actual fact, as the three brave Head teachers articulated today at the Public Accounts Committee, the realities are that we can not afford to have our schools cleaned every day, the gardens and grounds grow unkempt and our staff CPD budget falls well short of the CPD needs.
The time has certainly come for creativity, for entrepreneurship and for thinking outside the box. However, this really needs to arise from a shared understanding of a bottom line below which no school can expect to go. I am still whispering ‘Not on my watch will you be failed by the school system’, ‘Not on my watch’. But how long can I keep saying this and it actually ring true?