The State of our Schools

Following 2 huge by-election defeats, it's understandable that a struggling PM might make a renewed bid to appear 'relevant'. Giving the impression a government is (despite mounting evidence to the contrary) prepared to grapple with problems in a sector that really is facing a number of serious challenges might just save them few votes.

Yet in leaping up to announce 'new guidance' regarding the use of mobile phones in schools, the current PM and his government fail to notice (or perhaps deliberately ignore?) a rather significant reality. Schools up and down the country are already aware of the problem, they have very similar guidance to that which his government now proposes in place, they have done for some time.

Regurgitating existing measures might prove an easy PR stunt, it might even get some good headlines from friendly media outlets, yet it amounts to little more than saying you'll help tackle a problem that is already being tackled, primarily by telling those on the front line to do what they are already doing. A government that really cares about the future of our children's education (particularly true for those of us using our state sector), would acknowledge that there are many more pressing issues they really should be focussing their efforts on.

Staffing shortages in schools are already an issue many of us will be aware of (even what are classed as ‘outstanding’ schools are not immune). These shortages have an impact on students’ learning, and the remaining staff. Not only are students often left short changed, and studying with non-specialist input, the remaining staff put in to cover the lessons are frequently put under the additional strain of excessive workload - often in a subject they are not and have no reason to be specialised in. The threat of burn out is all too real.

The problem of running a deficit:

With escalating behavioural problems, soaring numbers of children with special educational needs, and increased pupil numbers, schools report that their staff are already stretched to the limit. Across England record numbers of schools currently report they are also facing a debt crisis with many warning they will soon be unsafe because, in an effort to save money, they are effectively being forced to cut teachers and support staff to save money.

Losing more staff:

The knock-on effects created by the prospect (or reality) for schools of losing many teachers and critical support staff also rears its ugly head, all this whilst the number of students requiring additional or extra support shows no obvious sign of reducing any time soon. Data from the DfE released at the end of Jan shows one in eight local authority maintained schools were in deficit in 2022-23. The percentage of LA maintained schools in deficit was 13%, 4 percentage points higher than in 2021-22.

This is the highest recorded number since schools took control of their own bank balances in 1999. For the previous academic year the figure stood at 1 in 13, by comparison those in deficit stood at 1 in 20 in 2011, the early days of Tory/Lib Dem coalition.

For Multi Academy Trusts the situation is barely any better, with accountants declaring nearly half of the MATs running a deficit.

Views from the profession:

The largest teaching union, the NEU, predicts the deficit figures for this year will prove “much worse” when released by the DfE next January.

Shedding more staff has all too often become “the only way out” for many schools, of course this leads to larger class sizes and more stressed staff who then leave a sector that is already facing a massive retention and recruitment problem.

Chris Zarraga, director of Schools North East, was recently quoted in the Observer Newspaper as saying “It’s grim. If you’re a small rural school or a secondary school with no reserves to fall back on you have no option apart from not replacing staff when they leave. That’s an issue for safeguarding and learning”.

One head has been reported in the same article as saying she has simply not been able to financially justify replacing teachers and support staff who have resigned over the past year. In the next academic year she says her school will be forced to merge a year group containing many vulnerable children and many with additional needs with the year above, because they are losing another teacher.

Impacts on vulnerable children:

If schools are being forced to take such drastic action to make their budget work, questions must be raised as to what the impact on the children will be. Can our children, especially the more vulnerable amongst them cope and can our remaining staff?

Wider public service cuts have frequently left numerous education staff in a position of effectively being the only ones left to offer a sympathetic ear to children of the poorest families-all too often there is no one else for them to turn to. Staff feedback stories involving families who have nowhere to live sofa surfing, and of children living in homes with boarded-up windows. The less staff schools have, the less they can do to try and help, the greater the emotional burden ending on the shoulders of those remaining in the profession, and the worse the end outcome for the most vulnerable is likely to be.

Concern over class sizes:

Daniel Kebede, general secretary of the NEU, has claimed that primary class sizes here are already amongst the highest in Europe, that secondary class sizes are the highest since records began almost 50 years ago, and that more than 1 million children are taught in classes of more than 30 pupils. Any further loss of staff will surely only exacerbate this issue.

Kebede adds: “The government’s disregard for the quality of education the state is prepared to fund is a clear dereliction of duty.”

What are Unions doing?

The NEU are currently balloting on proposed (renewed) industrial action. Cut backs and the speculated sub-inflationary pay rise for this year (yet another real terms pay cut) are not going down well across the profession.

The NASUWT are, currently consulting on possible action re the government’s plans for minimum service levels, they are advising members to reject the govt plan.


Our state education system requires some urgent help (without even considering the issue of crumbling infrastructure in many schools). We’ve suffered 10 Education Secretaries in just over 13 year (one of whom barely lasted a day).

We need and deserve a government that is prepared to offer some stability, pay a fair wage to retain good highly qualified professional staff. We need to recruit far more staff into the profession and then keep them. It is notable that Government training targets have frequently been missed over the past few years and by considerable numbers. We need a govt prepared to invest in our young people and invest in our state education.

These youngsters are our future.

What can we, as individuals do?

Firstly, we should be asking why we have a government and society that has allowed this problem to build up. It strikes me as rather cynical that in the run up to an election our government of 14 years are trying to persuade us our country is in rude health.

As I’m sure you do, I look around at the state of our public service provision, at schools, hospitals, roads and far more besides, I honestly can’t say that I see much evidence to support the government’s claim things are fine or even that they have any kind of plan worth pursuing.

Don’t stay at home on polling day.

Please go out and vote for a change.

We all deserve better.


Pete Force-Jones

Pete Force-Jones is the True & Fair Party Parliamentary candidate for East Wiltshire. He has spent the last 10 years working as a teaching assistant in the SEN department of a nearby secondary school, where he now works as an assistant teacher.