Austerity, the pandemic and now the cost of living crisis have left many schools in a parlous state. How hard do staff have to work to give kids the chances they deserve?
Take a short bus ride south-east, from under the dome of the Queen’s College on Oxford High Street, past the aloof spires of Magdalen College and beneath them the tourists wobbling in their rented punts, past the botanical gardens, the cricket fields and sculls of Magdalen College school, the Iffley Road sports grounds where Roger Bannister ran his four-minute mile, past a sign for the City of Oxford Rowing Club, and the city begins to thin into green surrounding hills and a view, as Cardinal Newman once wrote to a friend from his rooms in Rose Hill, “too good for me”.
That was in 1831. A century later, in the 1930s, a housing estate was built there. It was intended for those coming, often from defunct mines in Wales, to work in the Morris (now the Mini) factory at Cowley. By the time of the second world war, the city had built 2,000 dwellings here. They fan out from a large grassy roundabout called the Oval, along the northern side of which sits a long, low-slung building, Rose Hill Primary school.
The school was built exactly 70 years ago. Its “light airy classrooms … hygienic cloakrooms and toilet facilities”, its “well-surfaced playground” and “excellent heating system should”, said the new head of the infant school, “be the right of every child”. At the time, the principal of Jesus College also gave a speech, claiming that not even at the public schools of Winchester and Westminster were the classrooms as fine; visitors came from as far away as Australia and Guyana to see them. Today, the school serves about 300 children, many of them from the estate. More than half qualify for funding for disadvantaged children. A third are identified as having special educational needs, compared to the national average of 12.2%. For almost half of students, English is not their first language; between them, the students speak almost 35 different home languages.
All British cities have their pockets of poverty, but Oxford is the second most expensive place to live in the country, which makes life exceptionally challenging for anyone on a low income. It also makes it hard to hire and keep school staff. When, in 2012, Rose Hill’s headteacher moved on, after six years during which she had taken it from failing to most improved school in the country, governors were forced to advertise the job five times.
By the time they managed to appoint a permanent head, to begin in September 2014, the school was in a turbulent state. Twelve out of 15 teachers had quit, one was on long-term sick-leave, and some children were displaying extremely unsettled and sometimes dangerous behaviour. A few were running up and down corridors during lesson time, holes had been kicked in walls, roofs climbed on to, chairs thrown. The police had been called. A complete rebuild planned by the Labour government had also been scrapped by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition. The new head, Sue Vermes, told journalists that the fabric of the school building, which had been allowed to deteriorate in expectation of imminent demolition, was “one of the worst in the county”.
Vermes, a smiling, grey-haired woman whose unusually quiet voice belies the strength of her leadership, could immediately have instituted a zero-tolerance behaviour policy – with rewards and sanctions, exclusions and off-rolling (removing, or encouraging carers to remove, a pupil from school lists without officially excluding them). And it would doubtless have produced speedy results. But Vermes chose a different way.
It is an article of faith, for Vermes, that behaviour is communication, and challenging behaviour is a sign of distress. In her view, the onus is on the adults in charge to discover what is being communicated, and why. Only after that can the child be guided toward more constructive ways of responding. This requires understanding every child’s personal situation and history, and making sure they feel seen and heard; it means demonstrating and explaining respectful choices at all times. It is not quick, flashy or easy.
Earlier this year, over the spring and summer terms, I visited Rose Hill at regular intervals, interviewing teachers and support staff as well as, over many hours, the head. I sat in on 7.45am leadership meetings and on classes all the way from reception to year 6; I observed the playground at break and the lunchroom at lunchtime; I attended assembly and staff meetings; I talked to children. It was clear that since Vermes took over, Rose Hill had been transformed. It was a bright, happy school, full of people – children and adults – who wanted to be there. Not long ago the school advertised a job vacancy. Despite the current recruitment crisis, they received almost too many applications to deal with – many attracted specifically by the behaviour policy, and the school’s insistence on a child-centred approach.
From my first visit, however, it was also clear how the health of children arriving in primary schools – of their minds as well as their bodies – reflects the health of a society. And at the moment schools across the country are dealing with a perfect storm: 10 years of austerity, followed by a pandemic, and now the cost of living crisis. Add to this the chaos that followed Michael Gove’s shake-up of the education system, the adversarial tinkering of subsequent education secretaries, a children’s social care system unfit for purpose, a mental health system unable to cope and an escalating staffing crisis in schools, and the result is “a lot of fear”, Vermes told me. People are “frightened for themselves and for their children”.
There is a widespread assumption that teachers have it easy, that they work short hours and have long holidays. When most public services are overstretched, one teacher at Rose Hill noted, it is agreed that the answer is more money and more staff. In education, she continued, “it’s just that the teachers have to step up”. But during the days that I spent at Rose Hill, I often arrived at 7am to find some teachers already there, preparing for the day. Most were there by 7.30am, and there were often still some there at 6pm. One teacher told me that until recently she had worked until 9pm every day, and most of every Sunday.
When the pandemic closed schools, these hours were exacerbated by suddenly having to improvise new systems for teaching, while also trying to reach and engage children in their homes. At Rose Hill, early-years staff telephoned frequently and remembered birthdays. With the help of Google Translate, they sent out instructions for games and recipes for modelling dough in five or six languages. During the second lockdown, in November 2020, they visited all 70 early-years families every two weeks, to drop off projects and pick them up again, and check in on the children. The three members of the team in charge of pupil welfare made hundreds of home visits, delivering food and food vouchers, pens, pencils and paper, and checked in on children to the extent that they could. Staff had known that a proportion of their community lived in straitened circumstances; now they were struck by just how many parents were key workers dealing with the challenges of a high risk of exposure to the virus, shift work, low wages, substandard accommodation and little opportunity to supervise their children’s learning.
In January 2021, when schools were closed yet again, Vermes was asked on to the BBC’s World at One to talk about home learning. “They asked me if families had access to laptops. I said the government had generously given us 14, and we had 150 families in need of them.” She hadn’t gone on the radio to plead for laptops, she told me, but listeners promptly inundated Rose Hill with donations (one private donor sent £10,000) including computer equipment. Which was great, until many parents came back to say they couldn’t afford the internet data. The academy chain of which Rose Hill is a part, the River Learning Trust, provided wifi connections by sending out dongles. But where there were language issues, teachers found they couldn’t even demonstrate how digital learning worked.
When I began visiting in March 2022, the children had been back in school for a year, but the effects of the lockdowns were still being felt in numerous ways. Having spent so little time around other children, or in playgrounds, many of the children’s immune systems were weaker, and they seemed to be “very ill, a lot”, said Sana Malik, the still, confident assistant headteacher charged with overseeing attendance. Communication and social skills were patchy. Many children were struggling with play. There were more incidents of biting, hitting, meltdowns. Toileting could be erratic. Some children were more attention-seeking, more clingy. There was much weight gain, while for some, motor skills were not where they should have been. For Lisa Scott-Russell, the warm, thoughtful woman who has run the early years department at Rose Hill for six years, this almost back-to-normal period has proved to be one of the most frustrating since the start of the pandemic. “It’s not like people aren’t acknowledging Covid was there – but they want to forget. Maybe it’s more obvious in early years education. As a proportion of their lives, it’s huge.” But government targets must still be met, and “we are being judged in early years as if Covid never happened. It was an awful lot of living that was lost.”
One day in May, I watched children from year 2 being led into a classroom to sit their national key stage 1 tests in reading and maths. The children had just finished break; I held the door open to a stream of soft thank-yous.
Inside, they were guided to wide tables, spaced out far from each other. “I can’t help you,” Natasha Kamuna, one of the two year 2 teachers, reminded them, gently. “You have to try it yourselves.”
Across the hall a piano was being played, very crashily. “That sounds angry,” said a steady adult voice.
These are the “Covid kids”, Kamuna told me later – the ones who got a bit of reception, or a bit of year 1, and then a big gap. As in all age groups, many children did well academically, flourishing under one-to-one parental tuition. But those who were not able to get this help are still at reception level: not all can read, or grasp what a number is. This is a national problem. Data from 6,000 primary schools and nearly 1.5 million pupils published in February 2022 showed that of all groups, six and seven-year-olds were worst affected by learning loss; they were also taking longer than other groups to catch up.
“Now you can turn the test paper over, and open it,” Kamuna said to the children. The room filled with small voices reading haltingly to themselves. But a couple of children just stared down at their desks, in silence.
The tendency in Britain is to sort children very early into streams according to ability. At Rose Hill, “ability” wasn’t a term they used, because it implies that what children are capable of is fixed, rather than subject to change; it also fails to take account of the influence of the family’s income, education and stability. Teachers preferred to speak of potential, and of attainment. Likewise, success could mean many things. For one child, it could mean traditional academic markers, and Rose Hill has its fair share of academic high-achievers. For another it could mean that today, they were at school, and fed, and relatively calm. Michael Gove once decried what he called the “soft bigotry of low expectations”. Teachers at Rose Hill, aware of the power of this charge, countered that they were not making excuses, but working with daily realities.
Sitting at the back of classroom after classroom, I watched as teachers dealt with these realities. I watched them explain new concepts while also trying remember, as all primary school teachers must, who had confidently counted past eight without seeming to know what eight meant, and therefore needed one-to-one help, and who had cracked something far more complex and needed something else to do, right now, before they started messing around. I watched them striving to notice and acknowledge 20-30 different sets of feelings, many of which were probably completely different from yesterday’s feelings, while never raising their voices. I watched them try to remember who might be badly triggered by a particular sight or a sound or a smell, and work out how to support them – but also make sure the rest of the class was not derailed. I listened to them describe how they needed to know who couldn’t cope with sitting on the carpet with the rest of the class, who smelled of wee or had worn the same clothes for a week, who had a bruise they wouldn’t explain, and who just had a nosebleed (“thank you for dealing with that so quietly,” said one teacher, when this happened, “without disrupting the class”).
I watched one work with a class’s joy and ebullience, rather than shutting it down, by introducing a game of musical statues to demonstrate mathematical angles; I watched them endeavour to make sure their every word and action demonstrated reasonable, respectful, positive behaviour. I watched them smuggle little bits of learning in all the time – “If your name begins with D, N or A, can you go and get your going-home things?” I watched one teacher noting details important to each child as they came in the door – “Oh, you got a new haircut!” “Well done for remembering your homework!” – and watched another, in the space of less than five minutes, ask two boys to stop their distracting fiddling under the desk; give a child some extra maths, to challenge him; then give another child, to whose home the police had had to be called the previous night, the focused attention they needed. It was like watching some sort of extreme surfing, or a conductor leading an orchestra of meerkats. It was extraordinary to witness, and often very moving.
All throughout the time I spent visiting Rose Hill, there lingered an awareness that an inspection by Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills) could come at any time. Head teachers only learn an inspection is going to happen the day before. On the day, an inspector arrives to spend two days in the school examining every aspect of its operation, attending classes, interviewing teachers and children, and, at the end of the week, assigning a grade according to metrics that are liable to change according to government shifts in opinion, and indeed changed again just six months before Covid disrupted schooling. These grades, for which headteachers feel they are held personally, and very publicly, responsible, can have a huge impact on schools, from being suddenly oversubscribed, if they are judged outstanding, to devastation if they fail. Rose Hill is overdue for inspection, and Vermes spent the first two days of every working week treating her mobile phone as if it was an unexploded bomb.
What feels like a punitive way of judging a school is made worse, Vermes argues, by a curriculum that has become too focused on pouring information into empty vessels rather than enriching what’s already there. She cites art as an example. “They’re very keen on the children being able to do thin lines, thick lines, colour-mixing, shading – which is all useful. But there’s nothing about why they might want to do it in the first place. Nothing about why children’s art is so powerful.” At Rose Hill, where they aimed to help children use art to access their imaginations, colouring-in sheets, which dictate and close down options, were not allowed.
Reading was a particular bone of contention. Since 2013 all English schools have been required to teach reading using phonics, a way of breaking up words into sounds that children then learn to recombine. There are strong opinions on phonics, for and against. Vermes felt passionately that the school should use a variety of strategies to teach reading, depending on the needs of each child, and until recently schools had a certain degree of freedom in doing so. But in guidance updated this year, schools have been told they must use a type of phonics called systematic synthetic phonics, and use only the reading books that come with these systems. This was anathema to Vermes, who felt that the prescribed books, offering “limited and artificial text”, risked giving children “a dislike of reading, not to mention appalling spelling”. (Paul James, CEO of the River Learning Trust, said: “While the effectiveness of systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) is contested by some in the education sector, we have seen strong outcomes in phonics in schools that serve very similar communities to Rose Hill when SSP programmes are used effectively.”) After fierce resistance, Vermes reluctantly spent £16,000 on a phonics system called Read Write Inc.
Vermes’ beliefs about education were evident everywhere at Rose Hill. Rewards were not allowed because they stop the child developing their own motivation; they could also seem unfair. (If you give a child a sticker for improved behaviour, for instance, what about those who always behave well?) Punishments were out, and so was shouting at children. A child overwhelmed by things happening in their life, or who did not have enough tools for managing their emotions, was not to be silenced. It was better to guide them towards understanding what had gone wrong. Also, contrary to frequent practice, “We don’t make them say sorry,” said Scott-Russell. “We give them ownership. We talk to them about how they’ve made somebody feel.” Children were not to be restrained.
Vermes’ staff freely admitted to me that all this made their jobs harder. “Children will do anything for a sticker,” as Scott-Russell put it. But they just as freely asserted that they believed her approach to be right. “It’s the long game,” said one teacher. “In the short term, I can make this class sit, stand, jump through hoops. But actually it’s not in their interest, and not in society’s interest to churn out children like that. We want them to be able to behave and make choices that are good for them, for their neighbours and their community.”
Sue Vermes grew up in Manchester, where her parents – the son of Jewish refugees from Vienna, and a working-class girl from South Yorkshire who was the first in her family to go to university – had met. Her mother was the headteacher of a school for children with special needs. As a child, Vermes went to Quaker meetings (her dad went to a Quaker boarding school), where she gained an appreciation for pacifism and a “sense that you don’t need hierarchy”. In 1979, she went to St John’s College, Oxford to study classics, as part of their first cohort of girls. (A recent 40-year reunion “was the first time I felt at home there”, she told me.)
When she arrived at Rose Hill in September 2014, Vermes had been running a nursery school for six years, and had taken it from good to outstanding. She had not, however, run a primary school, let alone one in crisis. She had to recruit an almost entirely new team, embed her vision throughout the school, and get to grips with a new curriculum. Just over a year after she arrived, Rose Hill was inspected by Ofsted, judged inadequate, and placed in special measures. Vermes did not disagree with the main findings, but felt that the terms in which the school was described – and the way the inspector had approached her staff and children – were so harsh that they had been “criminalised”. (So harsh, in fact, that the local MP complained.) Showing me around her school seven years later, she was still angry about one of Ofsted’s particular criticisms – that one little boy did not have school uniform. “They were living in a car. It was miraculous he was here!”
It would have been understandable if she’d left, but she regarded her work as unfinished, and in staying she earned the respect of the few remaining colleagues, who were also traumatised by the preceding three years. Special measures, the worst possible outcome of a school inspection, mean that a school maintained by the local authority, in this case Oxfordshire county council, will be handed to the control of an academy. Academies, which date back to the Labour government of Tony Blair, are intended to have more freedoms over curricula and budgets than council-run schools. They are, however, also directly accountable to the Department for Education. Vermes, whose ideas about education could not be more opposed to the government’s, resisted this as hard as she could. But in June 2015, she had resorted to sending children to Downing Street with a letter complaining about the state of their buildings. The government eventually offered her £1.2m in refurbishment funding – on the condition she accepted academisation. Rose Hill was reinspected in 2017, by which time three out of five of the measured areas had improved to “good”. The inspectors noted the school’s “calm, cheerful and welcoming environment”, but still said the school “required improvement”.
Rose Hill now has new carpets and newly decorated corridors, a refurbished staffroom, and, most importantly, a new roof and windows. But the funds were not enough for everything the school needed, and Vermes has been enterprising and lucky in the ways they have been supplemented. Rose Hill is surrounded by green: a large playground and beyond it a huge field. Along one side of this is now a forest school, made possible by donated trees, planted by 90 volunteers. Another company donated fruit trees so they could start a community orchard, and solar panels for a solar-powered classroom. Vermes’ alma mater, St John’s College, upgraded the library and provided a grant for science equipment. A private, anonymous donor has paid for outdoor play equipment, books, school trips and a dedicated sensory room (soft lights, low sounds and varied textures, for children to go to when they need to calm down). The charity Magic Breakfast provides breakfast cereals and bagels every day. In October 2021, the then-chancellor Rishi Sunak committed £1.8bn to fund catchup and tutoring classes; Vermes chose to spend Rose Hill’s allocation on a dedicated reading teacher, who works with years 2-5.
One afternoon in March, I sat in on a year 6 class, in which the students had been asked to get themselves into groups and devise a lesson plan about a subject they were passionate about, so they could teach it to the rest of the class. They were planning everything from Latin lessons to an outdoor activity that would help explain mathematical concepts. Their teacher looked out at the industrious chaos, thinking about previous schools, in better-off areas, at which he had taught. Quite a few Rose Hill children start behind, he said, but “the thing is, academically, it’s no different. I’m really seeing the accelerated progress some of them have made. It’s amazing, how they can close the gap.” Though, he added, “It depends a lot on them.”
Few families want to admit they’re struggling, but sparse lunchboxes, hungry, unsettled children and no winter coats speak for themselves, and there is a busy food bank in the community centre just next door to Rose Hill school. Jane Birchenough, who is charge of children’s welfare at the school, said she was constantly struck by the resilience of the families she worked with and how good they were at embedding “really important values” in their children – but she was also acutely aware of just how many faced real hardship, even before Covid and cost of living crisis. I heard from employees at the school about, for instance, a parent who couldn’t put their baby on the floor because of rats; and a family of seven who lived in one room in shared accommodation, and had to take turns in the kitchen with other occupants of the building.
Hardship also adds to emotional pressures. When parents or carers are working long, unsociable hours, or when they are ill, or grief-stricken – partly because of high local rates of Covid, but also for reasons such as cancer and suicide, Rose Hill has suffered an unusual amount of family bereavement over the past two years – or if they are overwhelmed or depressed, or struggling with addiction, or just preoccupied with where the next meal might be coming from, their mental health is likely to suffer, and this can have a direct effect on adult relationships, and on the emotional security, or “attachment”, of their children.
Disordered or disrupted attachment, like traumatic childhood experiences, can have a direct effect on the ability of children to cope in the moment, and in later life. It is not only a major cost to society, but also, for the individual children involved, an urgent issue of social justice. Figures published in Mayshowed that a record 420,000 children a month were being treated for mental health problems in England, which many think is only a small proportion of those who need help – not least because some are waiting up to three years for an appointment.
Birchenough, to whose safeguarding team all school staff were encouraged to come with any worry, however slight, had seen the same. She ran a detailed system of escalation, depending on the nature of that worry, which could be about anything. Birchenough and her team had been known to help with school pickups and drop-offs, and to intervene in medical issues (unresolved eczema, say, or lack of dental care). They were always connecting families with further support services, or even accompanying them to court if they had to fight eviction, or debt payment orders, or deal with other legal issues. Birchenough told me social services will only likely to take immediate action if there is a risk of “significant harm” to the child if they return home after school that day – which leaves a “huge grey area” for the school to navigate, between good-enough parenting and harm.
“I’ve had to deal with some very, very difficult cases,” said Birchenough, a psychologist who began her career in the prison system, working with lifers, where she learned just what kind of harm fragile childhood attachments and lack of timely intervention in traumatic situations can do. She worried that some of the work she did with families created extra difficulties for the school. In this post-austerity environment, “schools are picking up the pieces because they’re trusted – but they are picking up so many that now they’re seen as social workers.” And that the wariness this created could damage trust it had taken the school years to build. Sometimes, Birchenough said, she could sense that people would see her coming and think: “Oh god, what have I done?”
Nearly every school will have a handful of children whose needs cannot be met in a standard classroom, and this is what special schools are for. In a trend mirrored across the country, Oxfordshire’s special schools are oversubscribed, so the county is now trying a new approach: to fund schools so they can set up specialist units themselves. In the past 18 months, Rose Hill had established two units. Last year, the one for younger children had four staff teaching seven children; the ratio in the older unit was 1:2. “I absolutely 100% support that approach,” said Sophie Hill, special educational needs coordinator. “It keeps the children in their community – and I don’t think you can underestimate how important that is.”
One warm Tuesday in May, I stood with a teacher as she supervised her class collecting themselves up to leave at the end of the day. Of nearly 30, a third didn’t have English as a first language, nearly half had social, emotional or educational needs and three had statements (a legal document that sets out a child’s specific requirements and how the education system will meet them). One child – who I had watched ranging across the classroom, flicking erasers around while the teacher patiently removed them from him, never raising her voice – had, she said, come from a school where they had restrained him almost daily. She had worked with him intensively through lockdown, just trying to gain his trust. “I have never had to restrain or intervene with him,” she said, proudly. More than one child lives in overcrowded accommodation and doesn’t have enough to eat. Yet another, who had dyspraxia and ADHD, had spent part of the morning running around in circles, shouting and telling her that her flip chart was rubbish. Most of them come into school, she said, and “they’re just trying to survive among each other”.
“I’m a free school meals, council-house child myself,” she said. “I thought I knew about these things. But I had no idea.” She told me about a school she had heard of in middle-class Dorchester, Dorset, where a child got sent home “for using the F-word”. She laughed, incredulously. She was punched on her first day at Rose Hill. “I’ve had a kid try to stab me with scissors. Hit me with a frying pan.” There are some days when “learning is irrelevant. We are just making sure they’re safe, and loved, and happy and secure.” Other days, she has had to walk out for a cup of tea, to calm down. And still other days, she is reminded about what it is all for.
She remembered once talking to Vermes about a child with whom she had worked really hard, bemoaning the fact that she didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. “But you know,” Vermes told her, “his name hasn’t been mentioned in the staffroom all year.” And then the year after, “he flew”. In the week we spoke, two children had had real breakthroughs with writing. “It’s taken a year and a half,” the teacher told me. She said she chose to work in this school over another, easier one because she believed in what Rose Hill was doing. “I hate it when I tell people where I work and they suck in their breath and tell me I’m brave.” Because “it’s so worth it. They deserve so much.”
At the end of July, Sue Vermes left Rose Hill primary school. The last straw, for her, was the phonics system – but in the end it could have been anything. She had always seen a large part of her role as protecting her staff from ever-changing rules and public criticism, but she felt she couldn’t hold the tide of micro-management back any longer. After the school was judged as “requiring improvement” in 2017, Ofsted was supposed to reinspect Rose Hill, but they never turned up. Vermes was angry about that, too – about the emotional effort expended on expecting them – but also about the loss of an opportunity to prove, officially, how much work her team had put into the school. (Ofsted told me that after becoming an academy, Rose Hill was legally a “new school”. This means it would not be inspected for the first four or five years.) Vermes was, she said, leaving in protest, with her work unfinished.
When I called her recently, Vermes was in France, where she has spent the summer, walking; she recently bought a crumbling house that she wants to do up so her children and grandchildren can come to stay. There was a lightness, a slight giddiness in her voice, and also a palpable sense of relief. She would miss the school, she said. She had loved it. She had been moved, too, to hear from staff, children and the children’s families at her sendoff how much her work had meant to them: “To feel that we probably did have an impact on a lot of children, that we helped them to see what they could achieve, what amazing potential they had.” She was touched and proud of how many likeminded, committed teachers she had gathered around her. But for two or three years, she had been trying to ignore the fact that the constant stress was affecting her health, and she now intends to take a year off, to recuperate. And then she intends to return as a campaigner, because if there was anything she learned from her career in education, it was that “a lot will have to change politically for some of our children to have a fair go at things”.
The outlook, at the moment, is bleak. Of the 3,600 Sure Start centres established by Labour to provide play sessions and childcare as well as parenting, health and employment advice, around a third have shut, and funding has been reduced by two-thirds since 2011. The most recent education white paper, however, published in March by the man who is, at the time of writing, in charge of the government’s purse strings, Nadhim Zahawi, repeated tired exhortations for teachers to do better. “I know, we always have to do better,” said Vermes disgustedly, at the time. “But the government has also got to do better in reducing inequality. They have to mind about that.”
And just last week, the headlines were of schools, already cash-strapped, being forced to consider saving money by turning off the lights, or instituting shorter weeks, and begging the government for help they had little hope of receiving.
This article was amended on 6 and 7 September 2022. A suggestion that Ofsted is responsible for setting the art curriculum has been removed; it was further amended because Vermes did not go to an all-girls Quaker boarding school as an earlier version said: she went to Withington Girls’ School, and to Quaker meetings growing up.