The political context for education over the next five years can be summed up crudely as ‘more pupils and more demands — with less money, fewer teachers and lower pay’.
So what did we hear from the Conservative Party conference to tackle these genuine challenges? Precious little.
he debate in our governing party is still stuck on the Maginot Line of accountability and autonomy; preparing to fight yesterday’s battles when all the challenges of the future concern capacity. Building places where they are needed, developing and encouraging great teachers; ensuring sufficient resources to meet the demands and allocating them fairly.
I was astonished to hear the Prime Minister claim ‘head teachers are growing in confidence’. They are not even confident they can put a teacher in front of every class or balance their books next year. I was however cynically impressed to see the reduction of resources and support painted as throwing off ‘the shackles of local council control’. Instead we have more free schools and compulsory Ebaccs. This is John Hattie’s ‘politics of distraction’ at its finest.
A theme of this conference was provocation — setting schools and parents against each other
When we asked school leaders what would best help them weather the coming financial storm — other than more money — they all asked for a period of stability.
Constant change carries a high price. For example, every year of students in today’s secondary school faces a different set of exam reforms. If ministers want to keep busy — in support of a leadership bid for instance — the DfE needs to stop interfering inside the classroom and move its attention to the ‘second circle’ of forces surrounding schools: governance, teacher supply, parental engagement, health and social care.
And on the topic of parental engagement comes the most dispiriting rhetoric of the conference. A theme of this conference was provocation — setting schools and parents against each other. This includes the docking of child benefit for truancy and a parental right to ask for wraparound childcare, with schools having to justify their refusal.
At the NAHT, we are strong on attendance. Term time is for education, but docking child benefit seems to punish the children for the decisions taken by the parent.
As for an ability to demand childcare provision, if the government doesn’t think this will be used to exert undue pressure, then it needs to see our casework file on parental complaints to Ofsted and the Department for Education. The top prize goes to the threat against a head teacher if they did not professionally endorse a local anti-fracking campaign. This right can and will be misused. Wraparound childcare is a good thing and many schools judge it the right thing to offer — if you want more schools to offer it, support them and fund them properly.
It is, incidentally, ironic to see the government championing parental rights when it has recently legislated to remove their rights to consultation during academy conversion.
This has been a harsh response to a conference long on populism and short on practicality. School leaders may not be confident in their government but they are certainly heroic in their ability to keep things going amid such challenging times. They should retain their confidence in their own judgement to determine what will work in their school.