Headteacher Judy Shaw: ‘My staff are fantastic but they can’t fight poverty’

Incoming president of headteachers’ union says the education system is at breaking point and school leaders have lost patience

On Judy Shaw’s first day as a headteacher, a man came to show her one of the school’s vast brick walls. She recalls: “He said, ‘Is that pointing all right for you then?’ and I stood there and I thought, this job is not what I thought it was going to be.”

But 14 years later Shaw is still headteacher of Tuel Lane infant school in Sowerby Bridge, a town nestled along the River Calder in West Yorkshire. In that time she has learned about many things, as well as bricks and mortar, including the telltale signs of the child who doesn’t get enough to eat at home, or the parent unable to cope who turns to the local school for help.

For the next year, though, Shaw is taking her hard-earned skills on to a national stage when she becomes the National Association of Head Teachers’ president, the head’s head, as it where, of the organisation that represents the bulk of the country’s primary school leaders.

“The changes in the education system in Britain over the last five, six, seven years, since Michael Gove was secretary of state, have been relentless. And that’s one of the reasons why I want to do this new role. School leadership is hardly recognisable,” Shaw said.

Shaw will be the first NAHT president from the early years sector, and from a very small infant school at that. While the average primary in England has more than 200 pupils, Tuel Lane has around 130, with pupils at the school’s gothic Victorian buildings drawn from the rows of terrace houses that overlook it. Shaw’s school is at the heart of its community in more ways than one.

Around a third of the school’s pupils are eligible for free school meals, and Shaw says that of the remainder the majority are from households where income is only just above the level of eligibility.

“We’re surrounded on three sides by the front doors and back doors of our families. My staff know when children haven’t got a warm jumper or a coat, my lunchtime staff know who hasn’t had any breakfast at home. This Christmas – and this is 21st-century Britain – we knew of families that had no lights, no heating, no running hot water, in their household.”

While Shaw says she has got used to policy in England being set according to “the whims of whoever happens to be secretary of state for education,” she says that it is economics rather than testing or Ofsted that gives her sleepless nights and makes her think about leaving the profession. “Standing on the school steps and seeing the impact of austerity, local government cuts and the lack of services in these streets, now that could drive me out.

“My staff do a fantastic job, and we try to be a bright light in this community, where people will come for help. But when you see poverty like that, when you see families with no heat or hot water, when you see the issues and the debts that families are in. When you see those living conditions, and you see the faces of the children, with shoes that have got holes in them, that drives me mad.”

Austerity is hitting closer to home as Shaw faces further rounds of budget cuts, with figures from the House of Commons library showing education spending in the school’s ward falling by nearly £400 per pupil since 2013-14.

She says the school’s latest three-year budget forecast looked “like a slot machine in Vegas – it came out so bright red, particularly for the third year, you’d have thought we’d have won some kind of bonanza.

“For the first of the next three years, the year we’re just entering, we are going to make some cuts within school. But we’ve already been cutting and pruning and trimming and not replacing staff who have left. So we’re almost down to where we can’t cut any more.

Tuel Lane infant school in Sowerby Bridge, West Yorkshire
Shaw says: ‘I might work in a Victorian building but this is not Victorian Britain, and it shouldn’t be a Victorian-style education that we give our children.’ Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

“The government is always saying that the amount of money going into schools is the highest ever – that’s highly misleading, because what we’ve got to spend that money on has grown hugely. There are more pupils in the system, there are more costs. It’s like saying you’ve got more money to do your shopping each week, but you’ve got a whole load of things you never had to buy before and the prices have gone up. So you end up with less.

“I might work in a Victorian building but this is not Victorian Britain, and it shouldn’t be a Victorian-style education that we give our children.”

Shaw’s particular concern is the ending of council funding and services for special needs pupils and for those with additional needs.

“The waiting lists for assessments are incredibly long, up to three years for screening, just to get an acknowledgment or a diagnosis. One child we referred in reception was not seen until they were in year 3,” Shaw said.

“Once a child has a diagnosis the school and their family can access specialist support and guidance on how to support a child who is, for example, on the autistic spectrum. But while that child is still on the waiting list the school can only get that support for £110 an hour locally. So that gives me another problem: do I put another bucket under a dripping roof and spend that money on ensuring that child has access to specialist support? Because if I don’t that child can’t access learning.

“Everything now costs us more – education psychology is £500 to £600 a day; behaviour support is £90 an hour. A few years ago those staff were employed by the local authority from central services. We could refer a child, there was a shorter waiting list, and then an educational psychologist would come to the school, reassure parents, and give our teachers some advice. That didn’t used to cost anything. I now have to pay for and broker all of those. I don’t blame local authorities for this, their budgets have been massively cut.”

Tuel Lane’s solid buildings of stone and slate are another source of funding concern. “This is a huge, beautiful Victorian building that sits in the heart of its community but it takes a heck of a lot of maintenance,” Shaw says.

Until 2010, the school received a capital budget of £27,500 a year to spend on facilities, improvements and repairs. But in 2011 it was cut to just over £5,000, while the cost of hiring a cherry picker for annual inspections of the school’s huge slate roofs, rattled by the Pennine winds, has risen to above £1,500.

But Shaw senses a change coming because headteachers are losing their fear of speaking out about funding, thanks to high-profile campaigns by unions including the NAHT and groups such as Worth Less?

Shaw said: “Those campaigns have empowered headteachers across the country. More and more are coming out and saying to parents: this is how it is. And once parents start to speak up – to say my local school hasn’t got enough money, it can’t do repairs, it doesn’t teach music any more – then that message will get across, when communities realise what they are losing.

“One thing is for sure – this generation of children is not getting as good a deal as the generation that went before it. We are stretched to the limit.”


Richard Adams

The GuardianTramp

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