Education has gone as far back to basics as it possibly can, writes Martin Matthews. If only politicians found ABC as easy as 123

If one phrase could sum up this year’s education policy, it would be ‘more heat than light’. The previous year’s cut-and-thrust of policy announcements evaporated like a will-o’-the-wisp, leaving governors with the freedom to focus on their priorities, but little power to act.

Yes, A is for apathy, which has characterised much of 2019.

Contrasting starkly with previous incumbents, we have hat two secretaries of state (so far) this year, and neither seems to have been overly concerned about leaving any kind of legacy.  Perhaps that’s not wholly fair to Damian Hinds, who clearly cared about character education, or to Gavin Williamson, who set his aims on the college sector. But both have seen their agendas swallowed up. For more on that, see B, below.

Previously cherished policies have not simply been put on the back burner, they have cooled and been stowed away in the deep freeze. The education system has been bogged down by an education politics in a kind of torpor not seen in years. This hasn’t been altogether a bad thing. It has enabled schools to take a breath and to focus on their work of educating children, rather than playing catch-up with week-in-week-out reform.

While reform is necessary, this apathy has been a refreshing change and, no matter who wins, I suspect we will look back on this aspect of 2019 in rueful hindsight after the election.

Why the apathy? B means Brexit, of course.

Politicians and the media worked themselves into a frenzy in readiness for 29 March. And again for 31 October. This is the year that the Brexitnado finally sucked in all the staff, resources and time from across government, making the day-to-day governance of our nation almost glacial.

First went stuff, and then staff

The result is that what once were straightforward decisions now take an absolute age. Schools choosing to academise have seen the average time double, and it looks like we will have to get used to this new pace of things. An impact to look out for will be how many schools now manage to move out of special measures before an academy order is even issued.

On the plus side, election battle buses have gone out of fashion in 2019. Funding promises haven’t, and for good reason: Cash. Irrespective of status or sector, not one school has enough of it. If the last few years have seen budgets look like satellites falling out of orbit, 2019 is the year they burned up on re-entry or crash-landed.

I’ve been in governorship long enough to remember this happening in the 1990s. First went stuff, and then staff. Yet we’re even beyond that now, and everyone (apart from Lord Agnew, it seems) acknowledges that without more money, things will have to change.

The squeeze on funding has led to the usual slew of myths about pay awards: “primary schools can only have 1 UPS teacher”, “headteachers and deputies can only get a pay increase every other year”, and other such dubious advice. But governors know that unless we pay staff fairly we won’t get the staff our children deserve.

After all, 2019 is also the year the government missed its recruitment targets for the ninth year in a row, and has had to publish a recruitment and retention strategy in the hopes of stemming the tide of teachers leaving the profession.

But perhaps the most important development in education this year has been that education has stayed in the electorate’s top five concerns for the general election, which hasn’t happened in twenty years.

Whatever the outcome, education should get more money, but that won’t be enough. We need a national conversation to reset expectations, and we need a sustainable, reliable funding settlement that allows schools to effectively plan for the future. At the very least, the near future.

Schools have to be better resourced than a settlement that leaves them hoping something turns up. Having had a reasonably benign year in terms of reform, the fact is that we can’t afford another. But 2020’s politicians will hopefully be ready to move on from their ABCs to their 123s.