No money. No ideas. A year of pure political purgatory

13 Dec 2019, 5:00

Schools have been visited by the ghosts or Christmas past, present and future this year, writes Laura McInerney. It’s about time they had their happy ending

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Oh, who are we kidding? This year has been the political pits and there’s no pretending otherwise. No money, no new ideas, and at the time of writing, no idea how it will all turn out. ‘If you’re in hell, keep going’ has become a useless adage. Life is purgatory these days.

Still, if you read The Department for Education newsreel, then 2019 had loads of reasons for cheer. According to the government’s latest mental health survey, children are “happy with their lives”, and their most recent workforce survey indicates that workload has dropped by 5 hours a week. And there are now more children than ever in good or outstanding schools, according to every ministerial speech this year.

Of course, what these headlines neglect to mention is that a quarter of teenage girls have an emotional disorder; teacher recruitment figures have been missed for the ninth year running, including in primary schools; and the statistics authority has repeatedly begged ministers not to use the ‘more children in good schools’ line because it is misleading. 2019: a good year for headlines, and a lousy one for truth.

A personal highlight of the year was sitting opposite academies minister Lord Agnew at the Festival of Education to grill him on the Schools Week exclusive investigation into ‘cost cutter’ reports – i.e. the dossiers put together by his team of school resource management advisers (SMRAs) who find savings for schools. Their recommendations included cutting lunch portions and replacing experienced teachers with younger, cheaper ones.

Why would anyone think Lord Agnew Dickensian?

Did Agnew really believe scrimping on a few chips would resolve school funding issues? The Lord responded that he was “not a Dickensian character” and that the schools in question really were wasting cash.

Why would anyone think him Dickensian though? What possible connection could Lord Agnew – a billionaire philanthropist, who failed at his fancy boarding school before making a fortune outsourcing low-paid jobs from England to India, then returning to become a Conservative peer and telling children their food portions are too large – have with Dickens characters?

A month later, the ghosts of education past returned to political life, when Dominic Cummings and Michael Gove took top positions in the team of new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. The Education Secretary also changed, from Damian Hinds to Gavin Williamson, the political equivalent of swapping the actress playing Queen Elizabeth in The Crown; their faces look different, but nothing much else has changed. Insipid and uninspiring seems to be the new default mode for Conservative education secretaries.

And then, it was election time! Arriving with the same speed and surprise that nativities catch out Year 1 teachers, we were all suddenly thrown into a blitz of education debate. Except, that’s about as true as those dodgy outstanding school stats. Our Teacher Tapp poll of 6,000 teachers found that a majority felt Brexit was a more critical voting issue than education, and once every party pledged “some more money” for schools, the whole thing mostly dropped off the election radar.

Nevertheless, Angela Rayner, Labour’s shadow education secretary, was undeterred from throwing out radical ideas – scrap Ofsted, give everyone free breakfast, max class sizes of 30 (including secondary schools), free university for all, bring back the education maintenance allowance, and tax private schools. Their practicality is to be sniffed at, but at least there’s heart in these ideas. The Conservatives, on the other hand, promised £4k per primary pupil (less than half of what a university student costs). That’s about it.

Which brings us to something missing in 2019. The enduring appeal of Dickens is that, in the end, the misery and grief at least lead somewhere heart-warming. In 2020, whoever wins the election would do well to pick a team that has, above all else, passion, empathy and a belief that money does more than get wasted in schools. Politics is the art of the possible. Let’s hope 2020 feels like that.


Laura McInerney is a contributing editor at Schools Week

Your thoughts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


  1. Mark Watson

    I was there at the Festival of Education to watch you “grill” Lord Agnew – he made mincemeat out of you. So sad to see you try and revive the arguments that got destroyed then – as he explained in embarrassingly simple terms, if a school is throwing away large amounts of food that children leave on their plates, then it’s blindingly obvious that the portions being served are too large. As well as saving money it cuts down food waste and reduces environmental impact. I know it’s a cheap way to score points by referring to “scrimping on a few chips” but please try to do better.

  2. Nick von Behr

    Sorry Mark Watson, but please explain what you know about school catering before defending Agnew. We have too many bean counters in the top echelons of English education and outsourcing contracts has been a mixed blessing. Time for Boris to really tell us what kind of education our children have a right to, NOT based on his selective experience from Eton. Please not Classics for all!

    • Mark Watson

      I really don’t think you need any experience in catering to understand the point I made, so I’ll repeat it again in a different way to see if it works.

      If a large amount of food is being thrown away because the children aren’t eating it then it’s rather obvious that too much food is being cooked. If a large amount of food is being thrown away because children are leaving it on their plate then it’s rather obvious that that too much of that food is being put on the plate.

      This isn’t saying that catering outsourcing is working well, or badly. It’s not saying the food is good enough, or not. It’s just that I was there at the Festival of Education when Laura McInerney threw out the glib “cutting lunch portions” line for a cheap point and Agnew responded with a mature, measured and sensible riposte that resulted in an embarrassed withdrawal.

      I also wish we’d get away from the whole class war chip-on-shoulder thing. It would be wrong and entirely indefensible if Angela Rayner’s views were dismissed because she was came from a poverty-stricken council-estate and left school pregnant at 16. And yet referring to people as Eton educated toffs and dismissing the validity of their position as a result of that seems to be entirely acceptable. Angela Rayner’s views and Boris’ views, as well as anyone else’s, should be considered on their merits NOT through the prism of what anyone thinks of their personal background.