As promised, I thought I’d look at the education proposals being put forward by all three major political parties as we approach this week’s General Election. And, as mentioned before, for full disclosure, you should know I am a Labour Party member and am planning to vote Labour this election.
However, you should also know that I have only been a Labour Party member since 2015, and that I have voted both Green and Lib Dem in previous general elections, last voting Labour in 2010. I have never voted Conservative in my life, and I am certainly going into these manifestos with a viewpoint; but I think I am open-minded enough to be convinced by a good argument. Furthermore, whatever my overall decision about voting may be, it may be possible that, on education alone, one of the other parties may have a better policy than Labour. Yes I am a teacher – but my job is not the only thing which will define my voting choices.
That said, and open-minded though I may be, I will focus mainly on comparisons between Conservative and Labour platforms, comparing their ideas to the Lib Dem approach only where appropriate. This is because on the first page of their manifesto, Lib Dem leader, Tim Farron, says: “In every other manifesto, a Liberal Democrat leader has set out a vision for government. However, I want to make a different case to the British people in this election” because “Theresa May’s Conservative Party is on course to win this election. Unless we make a stand, they will walk away with a landslide. We risk the arrogance and heartlessness with which she has governed for the last 10 months being reinforced by a majority that no government has had for 20 years” so “this election is your opportunity to change Britain’s future – by changing the opposition.” In other words, instead of running this election to win, the Lib Dems are fighting in 2017 to come in second place and merely limit the Conservative majority. This essentially means that whatever they put forward in their manifesto about education is largely irrelevant to any serious analysis, as their specific election strategy does not involve any plan to actually implement it!
So our main choice in this election is between Theresa May’s vision of becoming “The World’s Great Meritocracy” (a phrase I’m sure you’ll agree has been notably absent from any public discussion of Tory education policy, likely due to its immediate old fashioned connotations of a divisive 11+ system and false ideas of “merit” being used to hide institutionalised segregation) and Jeremy Corbyn’s vision of a new “National Education Service” (a phrase that has been used publicly, communicating the clear idea that we should cherish our public education provision in the same way that we cherish that other great Labour idea – a National Health Service). Let’s look a little closer then at what these two different visions of education entail.
The Tories begin with promising words: “The greatest injustice in Britain today is that your life is still largely determined not by your efforts and talents but by where you come from, who your parents are and what schools you attend. This is wrong. We want to make Britain the world’s Great Meritocracy: a country where everyone has a fair chance to go as far as their talent and their hard work will allow, where advantage is based on merit not privilege. To succeed, we must redouble our efforts to ensure that everyone, no matter who they are or where they are from, can have a world-class education.” They then flesh out what this “world-class education” and “Great Meritocracy” will look like.
Unfortunately, for those of us who have lived through the last seven years in education under Gove, Morgan and Greening, the Tories begin by claiming “we are proud of our reforms to education”, going on to name the accomplishments they are proud of as “the establishment of free schools and academies, and changes to ensure a rigorous curriculum”. Now there is yet to be any tangible evidence that the new GCSE and A-level curriculums are more rigorous as, by election day, there will be exactly no data to look at about this, let alone the several years worth of data to compare and analyse to make such claims credible. Certainly on the frontline, the curriculum reforms have seemed confusing, ill-considered, and sloppily rolled out, adding to massive workload demands for teachers and anxiety and stress for our students. Meanwhile much money has been pumped into ironically titled “free” schools and forced academization, with little clear benefit. Despite this, the Tories unashamedly promise “to go further in reforming our education system”, boasting they will “continue with our programme of free schools, building at least a hundred new free schools a year” and making an insidious financial circle between increased tuition fees and the further crumbling of public education by making it “a condition for universities hoping to charge maximum tuition fees to become involved in academy sponsorship or the founding of free schools”; also working with “the Independent Schools Council to ensure that at least 100 leading independent schools become involved in academy sponsorship or the founding of free schools in the state system, keeping open the option of changing the tax status of independent schools if progress is not made.” And if you’re not in a school funded by private schools or universities, the Conservatives are also promising to “lift the ban on the establishment of selective schools”.
Now, full disclosure, I currently work at a grammar school. I have also worked at comprehensive schools. I have absolutely seen the benefits in social mobility that my grammar school provides for its working-class students. However – and this is important – the most significant thing my grammar school provides students that was lacking in the worst comprehensive schools I have worked in (and what was present in the best) is this: a culture that assumes all students will do well. It really is that simple. Tell students they will be a success and truly believe in them, and they will be. Tell them they are bottom-set failures who will be lucky to scrape by a single pass in one GCSE and they will be.
Ultimately, the goal of any government interested in making “a country where everyone has a fair chance to go as far as their talent and their hard work will allow” should not be further separation and segregation, it should be making all comprehensive schools capable of providing the same self-belief with which grammar school students are currently gifted.
Remember, in the UK, when it comes to GCSE and A-level, be it grammar school, independent school or comprehensive, we are all teaching the same exam boards and have been trained to teach in similar ways, to the same teacher standards. The nuts and bolts of our students’ education are identical – the x-factor is the psychological impact of students and their teachers believing they are capable of success versus the impact of an underlying assumption that they are not. That damaging impact only gets further weight the more opportunities we give “successful” people to jump ship from comprehensive education to a selective one, leaving comprehensive schools as ghettos of low attainment, complete with all the associated psychological baggage. At the moment, grammar schools which already exist are doing great things – but we don’t need more grammar schools to roll that social mobility out across the country. We need a culture of equity in British education which demonstrates that you don’t need to go to a grammar school or independent schools to reach your full potential, and where going to a comprehensive school does not immediately mean a perception that you are somehow getting less of an education than people doing the exact same exams with teachers of the exact same quality in a different building in the same city. The Tories are offering the exact opposite of that, threatening to further entrench divisions that already exist in our education system under the false rhetoric of meritocracy.
Now let’s compare that with Labour’s alternative vision. The Labour approach to education is quite different, based not on a divisive principle of pseudo-meritocracy but on a principle of universal access for all: “At a time when working lives and the skills our economy needs are changing rapidly, governments have the responsibility to make lifelong learning a reality by giving everyone the opportunity to access education throughout their lives.” Their “National Education Service” proposes to “move towards cradle-to-grave learning that is free at the point of use. The NES will be built on the principle that ‘Every Child – and Adult – Matters’ and will incorporate all forms of education, from early years through to adult education.”
This begins with introducing further free hours of childcare to all two year olds, including subsidised childcare provision beyond the free minimum so people who work more than the 30 free hours can afford it, as well as revitalising Sure Start and increasing its funding after years of Tory cuts. Meanwhile, in schools themselves, “Labour will not waste money on inefficient free schools and the Conservatives’ grammar schools vanity project. Labour does not want a return to secondary moderns. We will also oppose any attempt to force schools to become academies.” Instead they will “make sure schools are properly resourced by reversing the Conservatives’ cuts and ensuring that all schools have the resources they need”, including introducing “a fairer funding formula that leaves no school worse off, while redressing the historical underfunding of certain schools. Labour will also invest in new school buildings, including the phased removal of asbestos from existing schools.”
The Lib Dems also criticise the Conservatives’ “flawed approach to the National Fair Funding Formula” and schools facing “an unprecedented funding crisis, with rising pupil numbers and an inadequate financial settlement meaning that real-terms per-pupil funding is being squeezed” under the Conservative government (though they conveniently forget their own role in the first five years of those cuts!) Meanwhile the Tories themselves double down on their roundly criticised approach to a national funding formula, claiming “we have begun to correct this and in the next parliament we will make funding fairer still”, before promising to increase school budgets by £4bn over the course of the next parliament, doing so at the expense of free school lunches in primary school. The Tories do not think these meals are needed, and instead promise to provide breakfast to primary school kids only.
In real terms, the Institute for Fiscal Studies have shown that this £4bn increase, however, “equates to a real-terms increase in the schools budget of around £1 billion compared with the level in 2017–18. Taking account of forecast growth in pupil numbers this equates to a real-terms cut in spending per pupil of 2.8% between 2017–18 and 2021–22. Adding this to past cuts makes for a total real-terms cut to per-pupil spending of around 7% over the six years between 2015–16 and 2021–22.” Meanwhile the Lib Dems commitment to a £7bn increase over the same period of time would mean “spending per pupil would be frozen in real-terms over the course of the parliament, which would require a total increase in the school budget of around £2.2 billion compared with today.” Labour’s plans however, according to their accompanying “Funding Britain’s Future” document, will mean an increase in school’s funding of about £6bn a year. (Compared to the Tory’s £4bn over the course of a parliament, or the Lib Dem’s £7bn over the same time period). The IFS concede this “would reverse real-terms cuts to spending per pupil since 2015 and then protect it in real-terms over the course of the next parliament. This would require an increase in school spending of around £4.8 billion in 2017–18 prices compared with its level in 2017–18. If delivered, this would increase spending per pupil by 6% over the course of the parliament, leaving it about 1.6% higher in real-terms compared with its historic high in 2015–16 (the small real-terms increase results from compensating schools for some of the additional costs they have faced in recent years).” So once we cut through all of the rhetoric about funding, it is clear that only Labour is serious about investing in education. Furthermore, while the Tories make no mention of undoing their 1% public sector pay cap in their meagre two paragraphs on “supporting teachers” (the main idea to increase teacher recruitment being providing bursaries and debt forgiveness for those training to be teachers – nothing to help retention of those already in the profession), the Lib Dems promise “to empower teachers and make sure they feel valued for the essential work they do”, pledging to end the 1% pay cap. Labour also promise that their injection of funding will be accompanied by “ending the public-sector pay cap” but add they will also reintroduce “the Schools Support Staff Negotiating Body and national pay settlements for teachers”. Also, while the Tories are busy removing free lunches from primary school students, Labour will remove the VAT exemption on private school fees to introduce free school meals for all primary school children. This single move could transform one of the main stigmas associated with poverty at a young age – rather than a free meal being seen as a sign of a child lacking something, it will be seen as the universal norm: a right not a handout.
It’s not just about proper funding though. The Labour manifesto says “we trust in teachers and support staff professionalism to refocus their workload on what happens in the classroom”, recognising that “a narrow curriculum and a culture of assessment is driving away teachers” and promising to “drive up standards across the board” not from top down enforcement of arbitrary curriculum changes but by “learning from examples of best practice, such as Labour’s London Challenge, to encourage co-operation and strong leadership across schools”. We have seen the clusterfuck Tory approach to driving up standards over the last seven years and found it wanting. The Lib Dems offer clarity on what their own approach to best practice and higher standards would be. They would:
- Guarantee that all teachers in state-funded schools will be fully qualified or working towards qualified teacher status (QTS) from January 2019.
- Introduce a clear and properly funded entitlement to genuinely high-quality professional development for all teachers – 25 hours per year by 2020, rising to the OECD average of 50 hours by 2025.
- Support proper long-term planning of initial teacher training places, prioritising close partnerships with higher education and specialist routes such as Teach First in order to recruit the highest-quality teachers in shortage areas such as science, technology, engineering, the arts and maths.
- Tackle unnecessary teacher workloads, including by:
- Establishing an independent Education Standards Authority to pilot, phase in and resource future policy changes in consultation with professionals and experts.
- Reforming Ofsted inspections so that they include a focus on longer-term outcomes and sustainable improvement as well as teacher workload, sickness and retention.
- Supporting the establishment of a new, independent Foundation for Leadership in Education, working under the umbrella of the Chartered College of Teaching, to promote high-quality, evidence-based leadership and help the best leaders into the most challenging schools.
- Continue to work with the Education Endowment Foundation to establish a comprehensive evidence base on what works in teaching.
I like both Labour and Lib Dems’ desire to focus on evidence-based CPD, but remember “the Liberal Democrats will not enter into coalition with either Theresa May’s Conservatives or Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour” (a manifesto pledge which does rather open the door for a coalition with either party were that party to change their leader, but essentially is reminding us that this is not a party serious about forming a government on June 9th). They are also the party whose historical u-turn on tuition fees show us that Lib Dem manifesto pledges are not necessarily worth the pixels they’re e-published on. Either way, both Labour and Lib Dem approaches are putting the emphasis back on the professionalism of teachers rather than the use of supposed accountability measures as a stick to beat the profession with. The Tories merely give a vague and unspecific promise that they “will provide greater support for teachers in the preparation of lessons and marking, including through the use of technology, and we will bear down on unnecessary paperwork and the burden of Ofsted inspections” without actually telling us how, or why the next five years under a Conservative government will be different than the last seven. The Tories are also persevering with their EBacc obsession, expecting 75% of pupils to have been entered into it by the end of the next parliament and 90% by 2025. There is no talk of changing/adapting the EBacc and adding further creative subjects to it, or a broader range of humanities.
Meanwhile the Lib Dems at least talk about protecting “the availability of arts and creative subjects in the curriculum and act[ing] to remove barriers to pupils studying these subjects” (though this is hard to take too seriously when also talking about seeking “to inspire more children and young people to follow technical and scientific careers through partnership with relevant businesses”; one of the key barriers already in place!) However, Labour promise – as well as a review of assessment across all key stages so that we can stop just “teaching to the test” – to “introduce an arts pupil premium to every primary school in England – a £160 million annual per year boost for schools to invest in projects that will support cultural activities for schools over the longer term. We will put creativity back at the heart of the curriculum, reviewing the EBacc performance measure to make sure arts are not sidelined from secondary education” as well as launching “a creative careers advice campaign in schools to demonstrate the range of careers and opportunities available, and the skills required in the creative industries, from the tech sector to theatre production.”
After so many years of STEM obsession it is nice to finally have a political party willing to look beyond Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths and seek to unlock all of our children’s potential in all possible industries and careers.
In further education, Labour also seek to reverse Tory cuts, introducing “free, lifelong education in Further Education (FE) colleges, enabling everyone to upskill or retrain at any point in life.” Meanwhile, after decimating the budgets of FE institutions since 2010, apparently now the Conservatives want us to believe they are the party who will “invest in further education colleges to make sure they have world-class equipment and facilities and will create a new national programme to attract experienced industry professionals to work in FE colleges”. Hard to take seriously given their record.
And then there’s the big one – higher education. While the Lib Dems have weirdly gone from the party of no tuition fees to becoming the party promising to saddle all our undergraduates with massive debt, bragging about their “accomplishment” that “in government, Liberal Democrats established a fairer system such that no undergraduate student in England had to pay a penny of their tuition fees up front or pay anything afterwards until they earn more than £21,000 per year”, and the Conservative Party don’t even broach the subject of fees beyond the earlier commitment to make those institutions receiving the highest fees to sponsor damaging academies and free schools, “Labour believes education should be free, and we will restore this principle…No one should be put off educating themselves for lack of money or through fear of debt… Labour will reintroduce maintenance grants for university students, and we will abolish university tuition fees.”
Ultimately then, for me, on the issue of education this election is about principle and vision. We have three choices, however one choice – the Lib Dems – are a false choice given their own admission that they are not looking to win this general election, and therefore, if all goes to plan, will not be enacting any of their policies.
This leaves us only with a choice between the Tories or Labour. Between five more years of a party “proud” of their disastrous seven year record of underfunding and overcomplicating education or a party offering to invest in education’s future from cradle to grave. Between a party who have overseen a crisis in teacher recruitment and retention, or a party offering to restore our professionalism and pay us appropriately for the job that we do. Between a party wanting to entrench inequality into our system through the resource-draining expansion of free schools and academies and the creation of more grammar schools, or a party wanting universally high quality education for all, no matter where you go to school and what age you are. Ultimately, this is a choice between a party who thinks education is a commodity to be bought by the highest bidder, or a party who thinks education is a right, universal and free for all.
On June 8th, we teachers have a choice. As does every citizen in this country who will be able to benefit from an education for life.
I know which choice I will be making.