Gateshead Head Teacher Andrew Ramanandi: ‘I’m still positive about the future of our state-funded schools’

Last week, Regionalitics spoke to Mr Ramanandi, Headteacher at St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School in Gateshead and architect of the petition ‘Increase Funding for Schools’. Perhaps surprisingly, Mr Ramanandi vows to remain both positive and hopeful about the long-term prospects for the UK’s state-funded education – despite the evident challenges facing the sector.

‘I’m encouraged because MPs across all parties and all regions are recognising the need to paint a national picture’, he said. ‘We’re all looking to cut staff, cut back on activities for children and non-core enrichment such as music and art. We aren’t in this position because of mismanagement. It’s because the money just isn’t there. This petition and associated debate made that clear: this isn’t about politics.’

But for all his unstilted confidence that the DfE will inevitably concede to real-terms funding increases in primary and secondary schools, a quick look at the data presents one difficult question: how?

Above all else, there’s the frustrating veneer of resistance by Government to truly grasp the gravity of the situation. Ministers continue to draw on comparisons with 1990 and 2000 funding-levels, maintaining that ‘more money is going into our schools than ever before’. Factually incorrect in real-terms, ‘School Cuts’ monitoring and activism service, maintained by the National Education Union, stress that 9 in 10 schools in England have faced cuts to per-pupil funding since 2015: that’s £5.4bn.

One headteacher based in Durham told me that the local authority is facing a budget shortfall of £5.6 million in special educational needs provision over the next financial year, with the money having to come out of the general council budget on a one-off basis. Even in stoutly Conservative authorities, such as West Sussex, rural schools are suffering from unprecedented cut-backs to resources, teaching and non-teaching staff. Ministers are so wrapped-up in fruitless debates around Brexit that they are refusing to listen to the plight of MPs from their own political party.

Information provided by the Commons Library echoes the concerns of the National Head Teachers Association and the National Governance Association, revealing that ‘there has been a clear decline in spending in the five years from 2012-2013 onwards.’ According to that same Commons Library data, public spending per head on education in 2016-2017 remained highest in London at around £1,600. It was lowest in the South East and South West of England at £1,200.

Even more frustrating was Education Minister Nick Gibb’s concluding remarks in the Commons debate prompted by Mr Ramanandi’s petition. Besides reiterating tired taunts that schools are receiving unprecedented levels of funding when measured by other means, Mr Gibb also suggested that head teachers use a ‘new benchmarking service’ to compare their school’s financial data with similar schools – and spend less money on advertising for recruitment. Gibb seemed unaware that ‘benchmarking’ is a practice which has been used by teachers for many years, and that recruitment advertising swallows a tiny proportion of school’s overall budgets. The overwhelming perception by the Government remains that teachers’ failures to ‘balance the books’ is down to financial mismanagement rather than their own flippancy.

While Mr Ramanandi agrees that the Commons’ debate itself was rather deflating, he tells me that his positivity isn’t because of an immediate expectation that teachers’ demands will be met without delay. Rather, teachers are concentrating on pushing for change in anticipation of the Comprehensive Spending Review.

‘What you’ll actually find is that this isn’t a regional issue: nor is it a case of inner-city areas versus their rural counterparts. Everyone is facing a squeeze’, he said.

‘If you remember “The London Challenge”, a programme launched by the UK’s Labour Government in 2003, that completely transformed the capital’s state education system. That’s why so many MPs outside of London now talk about this ‘fair-funding’ model: the idea that money should be available based on need. Headteachers and MPs nation-wide don’t want to take money away from other schools; they just want more money in the system. They want to see the kind of transformation that took place in London but never reached the outskirts. I’m confident that sooner or later the government will realise boosting educational attainment everywhere is in everyone’s interests.’

Brexit, of course, is getting in the way for now. But the National Head Teachers Association continue to take ‘all steps necessary to achieve the aim of a 10-year funding plan for schools.’ The NAHT annual conference recently backed a motion committing the union to industrial action if persistent underfunding is not addressed in the spending review. NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman told the BBC that the union will ‘work with government, advise and campaign.’ Meanwhile, Durham Councillor Olwyn Gunn, Cabinet member for children and young people’s services, added that she hoped ‘intense lobbying will result in increased funding from the 2020/21 Comprehensive Spending Review’.

‘This is why I’m positive’, Mr Ramanandi admits, ‘because I know that the messages delivered by teachers and local authorities nationwide will reach the DfE loud and clear. We live in very uncertain times. It’s difficult to know who will even be in power by the Autumn. But our children still need to be educated. This petition and debate showed that education is a topic MPs care very strongly about. Education underpins everything else in society. It has to move up the Government’s priority list.’

The onus now, of course, falls squarely upon the heads of Government. Only time will tell if Mr Ramanandi’s position is justified. I’m sure many teachers will not be feeling quite so reassured.

Cambridge’s access problem lies in the refusal to reduce offer grades for disadvantaged applicants

Though it’s been proudly operating an exclusionary admissions process since the early 13th century, not even the country’s most ‘unequal’ university can absorb relentlessly negative branding without having to concede at some point. It was perhaps inevitable then, a few days ago, that Cambridge would announce a cobbled-together access scheme that gives 100 disadvantaged students a ‘second chance’ at joining its undergraduate ranks through clearing.
Hailed a ‘step in the right direction’ by the Sutton Trust, the scheme reserves 100 places for ‘originally rejected’ applicants obtaining ‘better than expected A-Level grades’. Ethnicity will not be a factor in the process. Places, it has been revealed, will be offered to students living in areas that do not normally send individuals to Oxbridge.
Given that sizeable chunks of both mainstream political parties continue, unapologetically, to recruit their MPs from Oxbridge alumni circles, and that 42 out of the 56 most recent Prime Ministers studied at Oxbridge, it’s impossible to tell whether the announcement is a cynical and necessary riposte to bad publicity, or a genuine desire to harness untapped working-class potential. Guaranteeing just 100 places for working-class students out of a population of 3,500 suggests the former – and will do nothing to pacify national concern that Oxbridge remains an institution firmly and predominantly associated with posh, white, middle-class social groups.
The scheme, while offering some good news, possesses a fundamental problem. Offering a ‘second chance’ to disadvantaged students whose applications had been initially denied is perfectly noble, but also lazy.
There’s an irritating inconsistency in Cambridge’s presumed response to NEON’s ‘Enabling Wider Access to Higher Education’ report – which revealed just how few white, working-class students from Low Participation Neighbourhoods (LPN) were attending top UK universities. Not only did NEON specify universities’ rejection of candidates from LPNs as a contributing factor: it also identified the sad reality that very few students from underrepresented backgrounds apply to these institutions in the first place.
With this in mind, a far more effective strategy by Cambridge would be to waiver its abiding commitment to unnecessarily high offer grades for those students exhibiting great potential in interview, but whose academic record and predicted grades do them a disservice.
Tired rebuttals made by the university usually involve an assertion that the context of a student’s educational background is already taken into account when making, or declining to make, an offer. However, since the data shows minimal evidence of disadvantaged youngsters making it into universities like Cambridge, Oxford and other London-based institutions – it’s clear that something is going hugely wrong during this process. Another argument is that staff shouldn’t fall into an ‘ecological fallacy’ trap, assuming that an individual from a low performing school must automatically be low performing. This is flattering, but clearly out-of-touch. Psychologically, lower offer grades would be of immense benefit to those already struggling with ‘imposter syndrome’ from regional, working-class and underrepresented communities.
Using data based on 30 UK universities, the Sutton Trust – a social mobility charity – found that lowering university offers for disadvantaged pupils ‘by just two grades’ could lead to a ‘50% increase in the number of free school meals eligible pupils admitted to top universities.’ They found that in universities where they profess to use ‘contextual’ data when making offers, only 4 of the top institutions committed to reducing a grade offer; while arbitrary decisions about how to use contextual data left many students suffering from missed opportunities that they otherwise deserved.
Crucially, the report found no evidence that universities who contextualise offers and reduce grades are more likely to see higher dropout rates, lower degree completion or lower degree results than among their peers.
Clearly, then, Cambridge’s preciousness about A-Levels reflecting ‘innate’ and somehow all-persevering intelligence despite extenuating circumstances is unrealistic and unnecessarily harsh. In effect: what an individual receives at A-Level is as much about their teachers, school resources, family background and school ethos as much as it is individual capacity to work hard. The data provided by the Sutton Trust about reduced grades posing no threat to academic excellence refutes every illogical reasoning the university cites behind their refusal to reduce offers for the most needy.
Ultimately, the government is responsible for tackling educational inequality in secondary schools, not Cambridge. But throw livelihood-wrenching austerity and heavy regional funding imbalances into the mix; alongside a tendency for overworked teachers to inaccurately predict their students’ grades – and the way universities like Cambridge strive to ‘nurture diversity’ requires drastic reconsideration and upheaval.
Fair enough, some students from LPN areas don’t actually need a lower offer to reach Cambridge – but many do. And Cambridge needs to recognise that.

Regional bias is responsible for the working-class attainment gap: it can’t be ignored any longer

Just two weeks ago, NEON, the National Education Opportunities Network, released a report exploring the statistical dearth of working class students in top UK universities. These figures revealed, tragically, that ‘more than half of England’s universities have fewer than 5% of poor white students in their intakes.’

Helpfully, though perhaps overdue, this report draws explicit attention to the limitations of current efforts to improve access within higher education (HE): that is, a failure to account for the diverse and intersectional nature of underrepresentation. For the first time, bitterly entrenched regional bias has been officially identified as a barrier to social mobility, with the report’s findings showing that many working-class students living in Low Participation Neighbourhoods do not go on to participate in top HE institutions.

For a long time, we’ve known that there is underachievement of disadvantaged white youngsters across all forms of education. But now we know why: because the majority of these individuals living in ‘Low Participation Neighbourhoods’ come from regional backgrounds. Students living in those areas where university attendance is lowest – which is mainly among regional areas in the North and Midlands – are less likely to apply for ‘Russell Group’ universities, but instead enrol at ‘post-1992’ universities. Wrongly or rightly, these are considered to be less prestigious than their red-brick counterparts. The report showed that Sheffield Hallam University accepted the greatest number of poorer white students, along with Liverpool John Moores and Teeside. The top UK universities admitted barely any.

This is an issue much wider than higher education: it is about the discrepancy in opportunity between the country’s capital and its peripheries in all aspects of life. It isn’t about race. The young working-class individuals deprived from a fulfilling HE experience at more ‘prestigious’ institutions is not because they are white. It is because they live in areas with depressed local funding, terrible schools, high unemployment rates and little access to cultural enrichment.

While London and the South-East are brimming with cultural opportunities, grammar schools and ample prospects to earn a decent living (as well as all the associated ambition bound up with these phenomena), the North-East habitually produces the UK’s worst unemployment rate and possesses not a single grammar school. The capital alone boasts the highest proportion of outstanding schools in the country in both affluent and deprived areas, while the North-East sports the highest number of individuals living on free school meals (and therefore the ones less likely to make it to university).

What this report should make clear is not that working-class students are not being deliberately ‘forgotten about’ and ‘left behind’; only that the same opportunities to succeed are being withheld from them. More accurately, entire regions are left behind, and that incorporates everyone within them: it just so happens that they are predominantly white.

The ‘relative lack of white learners from low participation neighbourhoods (LPN) attending London institutions’, the report explains, reflect the small numbers of LPN in the capital, which is ‘almost universally a high participation neighbourhood area’. This explains why students of any colour living in the capital are more likely to participate in prestigious HE than their regional counterparts. NEON’s analysis found that of all applicants to HE by the LPN demographic, only 22% were accepted. More than half of UK universities have no procedure in place to prevent these students from slipping through the cracks. Instead, HE institutions accepted fewer than 20% of the applicants received from this social group. Doesn’t seem like a sensible way to incite confidence and fight cultures of exclusion, does it?

The take-away point here should be that one form of positive discrimination needn’t be privileged over another. Instead, society must focus on creating, as far as we can, an equal playing field that accounts for all forms of inequality during the admissions process by engaging with different measures of deprivation.

For example, getting 41 students from a state-school in London into Oxbridge is a massive achievement, but this in itself does little to fix the educational and participation imbalance between different regions of the country. The ‘working class’ is a broad church, but it’s important to note that everyone – including poor white students from a regional background – will benefit from wider inclusion policies.

We already have methods to track regional deprivation: now it’s time we put them to use. Take the POLAR quintile. This is a postcode tool that measures the proportion of young people in a specific area that participate at different levels of education. The POLAR4 quintile specifically looks at the proportion of young people who enter higher education aged between 18 and 19 between the years 2009-10 and 2014-15. It should be taken into greater consideration during admissions procedures as part of implementing ‘clear targets to recruit white working-class students’, which the report recommends.

Fees have so far acted as a deterrent for society’s ‘residuum’. As have cuts to local government funding in deprived areas. Rather than persist with the divisive tuition system, new scholarships and maintenance grants for deprived individuals from underrepresented POLAR regions must be created immediately in those institutions showing minimal admissions from LPN backgrounds, especially where living costs are particularly high (like Oxford, Cambridge and LSE, in which LPN acceptances make up only 3%, 2% and 1% of all acceptances).

The Government, meanwhile, must undo years of regional bias in local government funding and investment. Otherwise, divides will get bigger, people will become snobbier and the UK, on the whole, will not be a particularly pleasant place to live.