Primary schools spend about 80% of their budgets on their staff. If they’re going to keep the stationery cupboard stocked, keep the building standing and keep the power on, they can’t spend much more than that. For a one-form entry primary school (with a class of 30 in each year from Reception to Year 6 and possibly a nursery) in most parts of the country, that probably equates to a non-class-based head and seven or eight class teachers. The teachers will be paid according to their experience and additional responsibilities and will probably include a class-based deputy head. On top of that, depending on the way the school has chosen to prioritise, there may be a teaching assistant in each class or a smaller group of teaching assistants and one or two full or part time teachers who provide a small amount of release time or specialist teaching. For a two or three-form entry school all of this is doubled or tripled with a few small advantages that come from economies of scale.
This isn’t enough to do the sort of job most of us would like to see our primary schools do. And yet even this modest offer, which has been the norm since I entered the teaching profession in 2004, is being eroded by the real-terms cuts now faced by primary schools in England. What if we went the other way? What if we doubled the budgets for primary schools? You may think that sounds very silly. Of course every public service wants more money but, as the government has told us for eight long years, it has to take “difficult choices.” It is noticeable that those difficult choices seem only to have made things worse. So what if we tore up the rule book and went the other way?
Imagine a one-form entry primary school with double the budget. Overnight that school could offer a much more generous package of incentives and bonuses (still referred to as teaching and learning responsibility payments in most places) to retain and motivate its staff but still take on four or five specialist teachers to tackle subjects like PE, computing, art, Design Technology and music. This would give its class teachers time and space to plan the core of the curriculum more creatively and pay more attention to each child’s needs. The school’s increased budget would enable a wider range of more focussed interventions for children who are falling behind in the basics and better facilities and more up-to-date resources to support that work. It would enable the appointment of a team and allocation of a space designed to rigorously address both the causes and symptoms of disruptive behaviour so that the burden could be removed from teachers. It would enable the school to appoint an IT technician and keep up-to-date IT facilities working reliably. It would enable them to invest in authentic science and Design Technology equipment, proper sports kits, musical instruments, high-quality concerts and school productions, genuinely exciting rewards systems and exciting workshops and experiences from external providers. It would enable the school to take the financial burden of residential school trips from parents so that all children could enjoy the massive benefits such opportunities provide. In short, it would enable a state primary school to provide all the benefits that a private prep school offers its pupils.
Why is this just a teacher’s unrealistic fantasy? Why isn’t this something we already aspire to as a country? Primary schools empowered in this way would turn out pupils who were much better prepared for the challenges of secondary school and much more confident in the contribution they could make to society at large. When these children became adults, and those of us who had been brave enough to support such radical change were reliant on the state for support in old age, they would give back every penny we spent on them in increased productivity and innovation.
Double primary school budgets. Triple them even. Spending on our young people is the most sensible investment we can make.