The authors of the Conservative education manifesto clearly spent a great deal of time and trouble choosing their words very, very carefully.
First, I want to see the evidence that supports the claim in the manifesto that ‘contrary to what some people allege, official research shows that slightly more children from ordinary, working class families attend selective schools as a percentage of the school intake compared to non-selective schools’.
My suspicion is that Theresa May’s definition of ‘ordinary, working class families’ is one that is not widely recognised in established definitions of class. In two thirds of grammar schools the proportion of pupils on free school meals is less than 3 per cent. Even when poor children do well at primary school, only 2.4 per cent of the nearly 7 per cent who get a level 5 in their key stage 2 SATS actually get into grammar schools.
So the Conservative manifesto pledge to lift the ban on the establishment of selective schools is not a route to social mobility, or to a country founded on merit. Rather, it is a policy which further disadvantages those children and young people who, born into poverty, already have their odds in life stacked against them.
Second, many of the manifesto commitments are decidedly strange and very difficult to interpret. For example, the pledge to lift the ‘unfair and ineffective inclusivity’ cap that only 50 per cent of places in new faith schools can be faith-based. Instead, schools will have to instead ‘prove that parents of other faiths and none would be prepared to send their children to that school.’
I am intrigued by what proofs are envisaged by this. Will there be a straw poll of parents to work out if they would theoretically apply to the new faith school? Will there be tours of disinterested parents to ensure that the new faith school has an inclusive approach? I await further clarification with great interest…
Funding is the area of even greater controversy. The Conservatives promise to increase the schools budget by £4 billion by 2022. Whilst any extra funding for schools will be welcomed by desperate school leaders, the extra money promised will not be enough to match the rapidly rising pupil population. Nor is there any suggestion of the extra money being front-loaded. So the current cuts in school budgets, resulting in more redundancies, will continue apace.
At least the crisis in teacher recruitment and retention is addressed in a manifesto promise to ‘offer forgiveness’ on student loan repayments while they are in teaching. This is a real step forward and one which recognises the scale and extent of teacher shortages.
The promise to bring in dedicated support to help teachers throughout their careers is also welcome, but, again, the devil will be in the detail. What is absolutely clear, however, is that without much better career support, no government will turn back the tide of teachers leaving the profession. One statistic, which is that 52 per cent of teachers in England have less than ten year’s teaching experience, tells the tale of a profession drowning in excessive workload and stress and a catastrophic exodus from teaching in the first few years.
On one important matter, however, the Conservative manifesto is silent. No commitment is made to halt the 11.5 per cent cut in real terms value of teachers’ pay. Seven years of pay stagnation is having increasingly negative effects on teacher morale and retention, and, as politicians are so fond of telling us, no education system can exceed the quality of its teachers. So, Theresa, why not pay them properly for the invaluable work they do?