Competition is increasing among Norfolk and Suffolk schools
17:52 30 July 2012
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Schools have always competed against each other.
So it will come as no surprise to hear that one headteacher, whether openly or secretly, will want to be ahead of a rival when those annual league tables are released.
But with seemingly never-ending collection of comparisons, the advent of academies and free schools, and a government which openly refers to and encourages a schools “market”, that competition is becoming a more and more important part of the education world.
For the most part, competition which drives improvements in standards and guards against complacency will be welcomed by teachers, pupils and parents alike.
But there are concerns the government’s “survival of the fittest” approach could be beginning to have some unappealing consequences.
Norfolk and Suffolk’s schools are certainly not against a bit of healthy competition.
Any headteacher will tell you they want their school to be the best and to grab the best place possible on the GCSE and A-level league tables released each winter by the department for education (DfE).
But there is an increasing awareness among them that appearing at their very best in order to attract more pupils – who each come with an appealing price tag – is not only preferable but essential for survival.
Rob Anthony, associate headteacher at the Hewett School, (pictured below left) said a dip in the number of secondary school-aged children was putting particular pressure on schools.
The majority of funding is designed to “follow the child”, meaning schools receive most of their money as part of a per-pupil allocation.
But if student numbers drop, so does the overall budget.
Mr Anthony said: “The biggest expense in schools is staffing. The biggest source of income is pupil numbers.
“The reality is, if your pupil numbers drop you have to cut teachers. You could end up losing some teachers you wouldn’t want to lose because you can’t afford to keep them.
“Several schools in Norfolk are in that position. We have had to make one compulsory redundancy – although we started out expecting more. It’s not a very pleasant process.”
Numbers at secondary school level are dropping in Norfolk and Suffolk and plans for at least one new secondary free school, a sixth form free school, and a 14-19 university technical college will only add to that situation.
Jeremy Rowe, headteacher at Sir John Leman High School in Beccles, has been at the centre of one of the most public examples of competition among schools in Norfolk and Waveney.
Beccles Free School is due to open at the Carlton Colville Primary School site in September before moving to the Beccles Middle School building in 2014.
While the Seckford Foundation, the charity behind the school, says it will give parents more choice in the area, Mr Rowe has campaigned strongly against the opening which he believes will harm youngsters by splitting the available funding between two schools when there are not enough pupils to justify it.
The headteacher said the pressure on all schools to boost student numbers meant they were having to put more effort in to how they presented themselves to the public.
“We’re going to see a lot more of that,” he said. “School budgets will be spent on free blazers, glossy brochures and full page adverts in the paper rather than on reducing class sizes.
“It’s a game we have to play. But it means you are taking hundreds of millions of pounds out of school budgets and handing them to newspapers.
“We do it ourselves. We have changed our uniform. We make sure we have a high profile in the local papers. We have adverts on the local radio about open evenings. We have to.”
While most schools would rather not use their vital funds to pay for advertising, many are realising it is now a necessary part of today’s education system.
But there are other elements of the increasing sense of competition which are not so easy to justify.
Some headteachers fear some schools will be – and have already been – tempted to promote themselves unfairly.
Ian Clayton, head teacher at Thorpe St Andrew High School, which was over-subscribed for this September and will welcome 30 more pupils than expected when its doors re-open, said he had already seen examples of schools misleading parents.
Mr Clayton, pictured below right, said: “I don’t want to use the word lie but, to be honest with you, schools are over-emphasising. They are having to play the whole time. They are manipulating what’s out there to create some PR. I can understand it to a certain extent, when they are fighting for pupils. But it is misleading to some extent.”
There are also concerns that, in order to boost their league table standings, schools will also try to target the highest performing youngsters at the expense of others.
Mr Rowe said: “We are a genuine and proud comprehensive school. All children need a good education. The economy demands that all our children get a good education.
“That’s what I worry about – that there will be a rump of schools unable to compete and they will be left at a distinct disadvantage.”
Mr Clayton added: “This government has set up a competitive element, but it doesn’t serve the needs of all youngsters.”
Hewett School associate headteacher Mr Anthony said headteachers in Norwich had begun to recognise that danger.
He said: “We had a meeting of a group of heads recently and we agreed we would follow certain protocols – for example we won’t put down a certain school in our literature.
“We accept there is going to be more competition but we would like to do it a way what’s fair and reasonable.”