Issue 212: 2019 07 25: Education, Education…

July 25 2019

Education, Education, Education

Energising the state system.

By Lynda Goetz

In 1997, Tony Blair famously spoke of the Labour Party’s Manifesto commitment to a focus on ‘Education, Education, Education’.  In the years since then there has been much government meddling with the systems used to deliver education in this country, as well as the systems used to measure their outcomes.  They have not all been a resounding success.

On Tuesday, Boris Johnson won a mandate from the Conservative Party to become its next leader and hence, on Wednesday, a mandate from the Queen to become the 55th Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.  As I have no crystal ball and am not a reader of tea leaves, I will leave the prognostications of how this will pan out to the Laura Kuenssbergs and other political pundits.  However, given the inordinate amount of media coverage focused on the fact that Boris is yet another Old Etonian to hold high office, and that only last week Labour activists circulated a motion calling for a Labour government to abolish private schools altogether (@AbolishEton), it might be worth a quick look at the state of British Education and any plans Boris might have for it should his premiership last beyond an autumn election or 31st October.

Theresa May, rather sadly, has had to draw attention to her (somewhat slimmed down) legacy this week.  After her failure to ‘deliver’ Brexit she attempted to have a final splurge to deal with some of those things she had really wanted to do as Prime Minister (‘PM’).  One direction in which she wanted to throw money was towards education.  Philip Hammond, as Chancellor, denied her the opportunity to spend £27 billion in advance of the arrival of a new PM, deeming that it would undermine the Conservative Party’s reputation for fiscal discipline and jeopardise the ‘fiscal war chest’ available to help cope with a ‘no-deal Brexit’ (against which, as he has made very clear, he is determined to stand in any event).  To be fair, Mrs May, who owes her own education to the old grammar school system, has always wanted to help improve the State system.  One of her early ambitions was to bring back, to some degree at least, the system of grammar schools as a way of improving social mobility.  That idea was drummed out of existence pretty rapidly by those who felt it far too controversial (see earlier Shaw Sheet articles: Grammar Schools;Grammar Schools, Right or Wrong).  In the meantime, social mobility has, it would seem, not improved in the 21st century and, according to the sixth government report on the subject published in April this year, inequality remains entrenched; being born privileged means you are likely to remain so; and urgent action is required.

According to Damien Hinds, the Secretary of State for Education from January 2018 until today, social mobility remains at the heart of Tory policy.  Speaking in June at the start of the leadership contest (in which he supported former Education Secretary Michael Gove), he felt that, whoever won the election for leader, this would not change.  However, others are not so sure that people like Boris have any real understanding of ordinary people or the opportunity gap which exists (Independent article).  Boris claims to be keen to improve both education and social mobility in this country, but back in 2013 Nick Clegg (himself a product of an elite private education at Westminster) suggested that comments made by Boris revealed ‘a fairly unpleasant, careless elitism’.  Whatever the merits of the arguments, Boris has promised a return to the funding level of 2015 at £5,000 per pupil.  This to some extent is disingenuous, as three-quarters of schools are already at this level and from September every school will receive a minimum of £4,800 per pupil – meaning that the cost of Boris’s policy would be a mere £50 million.  It is nevertheless a good start.

Are the Labour party right and would it help if private schools were simply abolished?  This would seem to seek to ‘blame’ such schools for their excellence and to remove the element of choice which democracy should surely be keen to preserve.  In the same way as those with money are free to purchase private health care, should they so wish, (and in so doing, lighten the burden borne by the state), it would seem right to allow those with the funds to spend them, should they so choose, on their children’s education.  (Presumably the Labour party would seek to prevent them equally from spending their wealth on property, art or indeed anything at all?  Maybe straightforward confiscation is the answer?)  Is it perhaps correct to seek to punish such children for their parents’ wealth by imposing quotas or limits on the numbers of children from a private education background admitted to the better universities?  These, and others relating to the excellence or otherwise of the state system, are important and fundamental questions which we need to be asking ourselves in the years to come.

Tony Blair was right to emphasise the importance of education.  It is fundamental.  However, it should perhaps be the job of our government to elevate, as far as possible, the state system to the same level as the private system; not to destroy the private system because it is better, nor to deny those privately educated access on the grounds that their parents’ wealth gave them an unfair advantage.  So it may have done, but they themselves have also worked to achieve.  To deny that is to deny freedom of choice and is social engineering of the worst kind.  The aim (and it is always worth aiming high even if you fall short) should be to make all state schools models of efficiency and examples of teaching excellence so that private schools become unnecessary.  This would also be a step towards eliminating middle-class ‘gaming of the system’ as highlighted in the BBC2 programme ‘How the Middle Class Ruined Britain’ on Tuesday evening with working-class Tory comedian, Jeff Norcott.  (If you can’t afford private education, then the next-best thing is to get your child into one of the best state schools – even if it means lying about where you live).

Tony Blair’s policy of getting 50% or more of young people leaving school into universities or higher education led to a proliferation of so-called ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees and qualifications with ‘equivalence’ to degrees.  This week it was announced by the Department for Education (DfE) that funding for ‘lower quality’ BTECs, Tech levels and their equivalents will be withdrawn from 2020.  This will be a saving of monies which can be reapplied elsewhere.  An overhaul of post-16 education is currently underway to improve technical training and whoever takes over from Damien Hinds in the new PM’s shuffle will surely be expected to continue this review.  As Mr Hinds pointed out, “…you cannot legislate for parity of esteem between technical and academic education – you’ve got to ensure high standards, then the esteem will come.”

One of the problems we have with esteem in education in this country is the lack of it towards teachers.  Other educational news this week has shown how many teachers feel undervalued, unsupported and disrespected.  The recent Ofsted survey provided evidence that teachers were spending less than half their time actually teaching and the rest dealing with a variety of administrative tasks (including those imposed by Ofsted as well as being bombarded 24/7 by demanding parents).  The rise of social media and the ability of parents to have access to teachers’ email addresses has led to a culture where teachers’ levels of dissatisfaction with their chosen career have risen and are driving many away from the profession.  Might a pay rise help morale?  The latest pay rise of 2.75% payable to teachers this year is funded only as to 0.75% by government.  The rest is going to have to come out of school budgets – which will essentially mean cut-backs in other areas.

Whoever takes over once Boris has announced his new Cabinet will, if the government is still in power beyond this autumn, have plenty to look at in the field of education.  At least Higher Education falls under the brief of the Higher Education Minister (as I write, Chris Skidmore), but overall there is a lot to deal with.  What is quite certain is that the government needs to be very clear as to its aims for both schools and higher education and that if we are to pay for all or any of it to be improved, then Boris Johnson’s ambitions for increasing the dynamism of our economy and GDP will definitely need that E for energise – a view reinforced by reading the economist, Professor Jagjit Chadha, writing in The New Statesman this week.



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