Staffing headache is hurting Fenland schools when it comes to hitting government targets
Difficulties in recruiting teachers in Fenland is one of the biggest factors affecting our schools and their performance in newly-published league tables.
On Thursday the Department for Education released its official figures highlighting the performance of state-funded mainstream primary schools nationwide.
The statistics were based on the results of Year 6 Sats or national curriculum tests taken by 11 year-olds at the end of the last school year and for many of our schools it made for poor reading, with most failing to meet government targets in reading, writing and maths.
Schools are considered to be under-performing if fewer than 65 per cent of pupils reach the expected standard, or if they fail to make sufficient progress in the three key areas. Only a handful of Fenland schools achieved that or higher, including Murrow and Manea.
Among the poorest performing schools in our area were both St Peter’s Cof E and the Orchards CofE schools in Wisbech, where only 23 per cent and 24 per cent of pupils respectively hit the government target.
Andrew Read, chief executive of the Diocese of Ely Multi-Academy Trust (DEMAT), which runs the schools, said: “DEMAT was asked by the Department for Education to take over St Peter’s and Orchards following a long period of under-performance at both schools under the previous responsible body.
“We took over St Peter’s in 2014, lifting the school out of an ‘inadequate’ category in 2017.
“Orchards has been part of DEMAT for less than a year. We continue to work hard with these schools and important communities to make the necessary improvements to raise levels of attainment. Of course, many of these improvements are not yet visible in the raw data used to create league tables.”
Benwick School and Kinderley in Tydd St Giles both saw 33 per cent of their pupils achieve the prescribed level.
But the statistics do not tell the full story of why so many of our schools are struggling. The Citizen took a look behind the numbers and discovered a worrying trend.
Nearly all the schools we spoke to, even those like Friday Bridge which has seen a massive turn around from 11 per cent last year to 50 per cent this year, have had recruiting issues in the past.
Jackie North, head teacher at Benwick, puts her school’s low achievement firmly down to a lack of staffing and the inability to attract teachers.
She said: “The big issue is staffing. My Year 6 did not have a full-time teacher in and we were relying on supply staff, and that makes a huge difference. We struggle to even get applications for vacancies.
“People coming out of university just don’t want to come to this area, as we have nothing to offer them in the way of night life, and transport links are poor.”
Her view was endorsed by Jenny Atkins at Kinderley where she found herself having to teach for two-thirds of last year because of under staffing.
She said: “We are lucky to get even one application for a teaching job, but if we advertise an admin post then we will have at least five applicants.
“I’m lucky I now have a settled staff, but that is because I have managed to persuade people I know to join us.”
Another head of a Wisbech school, who did not want to be named, said: “My first reaction is teacher recruitment, it’s as simple as that.
“We have struggled to find teachers, but we have a plan in place and I expect to be fully staffed by September 2019. I don’t want parents to be put off sending their children here, but it is a huge issue.”
Sophie Foston, head at Friday Bridge School, which has seen a major turn-around since she took over in September 2017, agreed recruitment is a problem in this area.
She said: “We share the concerns around recruitment which the other schools face, however we are fully staffed.
“I feel we have been very fortunate to have attracted such high quality practitioners when there is a growing nationwide recruitment crisis which particularly affects this area.
“I am incredibly lucky, we have a great staff and they have done a fantastic job. We have focused on raising aspirations for our children, and on continuous assessment to ensure we are making progress.
“But I know how hard it is to find teachers and it is not just this area. It is a growing problem as more people decide to leave the profession because of the pressures placed on teachers to hit targets.”
Among issues highlighted by those we spoke to was the low level of funding for Cambridgeshire schools, something the county council has recognised. It has been fighting for a fairer deal for our pupils.
The government has recognised the area has issues and last year launched the Fenland and East Cambs Opportunity Area with these key priorities: Raising aspirations, accelerating progress of disadvantaged children, strengthening support for children with special needs and mental health issues and recruiting, developing and retaining teachers.
Other factors that can affect schools’ performances include the number of children with English as a second language and those with special needs. This is especially true in smaller schools where one child counts as a higher percentage.