The Conservative manifesto talks about governing from the mainstream, but its education policies hardly match the rhetoric, claims Kiran Gill
I recently wrote an assessment of Labour’s manifesto policies on education, and one of my marking criteria was on how well the party could shift the “narrative” of education.
By narrative, I mean the stories told about those policy areas which take hold in the public imagination and shape perceptions of the government’s role within them, and how some policies come to be considered extreme while others are seen to be reasonable.
Framing is a well-known political tool, used to great effect when New Labour positioned themselves at the political centre, framing their ideas as neither left nor right but as a new “third way”. In fact, we could be leafing through the opening pages of their 1997 manifesto as we read the evocative introduction to the 2017 Conservative manifesto: “We reject the ideological templates provided by the socialist left and the libertarian right.”
May’s Conservatism is framed for the voters as a compromise between two extremes, the only “reasonable” option, or “governing from the mainstream”, as she terms it.
School funding at the moment is far from “just right”
And so it is with their most attention-grabbing education policy: the scrapping of universal infant school meals. Giving free school dinners to all infants was prioritised under Cameron’s austerity government. Now, however, May’s manifesto describes it as “not the best use of public money”.
That’s a shrewd political move. Labour’s policy to extend free dinners to all primary pupils polled well. So by giving money for free primary breakfasts, the Conservatives seek to gain the same popular support, though by rowing back on their universal policy for infants’ lunches they seek to make Labour’s pledge look unnecessary and extreme.
The Tory manifesto proposes that the “savings” from scrapping free school meals (forget the money shelled out to refit school kitchens and build new dining rooms) will be reinvested in schools. In doing so, the Conservatives present their funding policy as a Goldilocks compromise – not too much, nor too little, but “just right”.
School funding at the moment is far from “just right”, though. There has been wholesale change in what schools must deliver and how they monitor it, along with reforms to curriculum and testing. Yet the money for training teachers and improving schools was cut to the bone in 2015, when the Education Services Grant was slashed by 70 per cent. Though school funding was protected, it was not matched to pupil numbers, and as more children reach school age it has amounted to real-terms cuts.
Meanwhile, schools have had to scrape new money together from their dwindling budgets to fund increased pension contributions, rising national insurance and the incoming apprenticeship levy. The £4 billion announced in the latest Tory manifesto stays the axe which had been hovering over certain schools, threatening to harm them further, but it does not reverse the damage which has already happened. Cuts are already having an impact on the curriculum, class sizes and education of the most vulnerable students in many schools.
Every day, 31 children are excluded from the mainstream school system. These are some of the country’s most vulnerable: twice as likely to live in care, four times more likely to grow up in poverty and seven times more likely to have a special educational need than other students. From local authority to local authority I hear the same stories about the causes of climbing exclusion rates.
In growing class sizes, the needy children are being left behind. As they frantically prepare for new exams, teachers struggle to get professional development on issues like mental health.
And as the pressure mounts to achieve more with less, schools lose their teachers; as more temporary staff are left running chaotic classrooms, behaviour spirals out of control. One in 50 children in our mainstream schools are categorised with social, emotional and mental health needs. In schools for excluded pupils, it is one in two.
The Conservative manifesto pledged to create a “great meritocracy” and to prioritise the “burning injustice” of support for mental health. These are noble ambitions. But it will take more than rhetoric for the Conservatives to change the lives of the country’s most vulnerable children.
Mrs May will need to put her money where her mouth is.
Kiran Gill is a policy consultant, and founder of The Difference