Politics

No smoke and mirrors can hide the parlous state of our schools

Try as they might, nothing can distract teachers from a government that’s run out of road, says Mary Bousted

Try as they might, nothing can distract teachers from a government that’s run out of road, says Mary Bousted

3 Oct 2023, 17:21

We are slap bang in the middle of the silly season which, this week, features the Conservative Party conference.  Wanting us to believe three impossible things before breakfast, the Tories are adopting distraction tactics.

These rely upon sleight of hand and culminate in repeated attempts to deny some hard truths. Government ministers in successive interviews engage in implausible deniability of who has actually been in power for the past 13 years. 

A clean slate

Ministers like to talk about this ‘administration’ (rather than this government). They attempt to draw a dividing line between Rishi Sunak and his government and the the four previous Conservative prime ministers who have been in power for over a decade. 

So, ministers argue, it was another ‘administration’ that cut police numbers beyond the bone and led to the huge rise in crime; another ‘administration’ that presided over the precipitous decline in applications to teacher training with such disastrous consequences for schools and for their pupils.

Nothing to do with me guv, they intimate. Let’s not look back, they say. Let’s wipe the slate clean. We hold no responsibility for what went before. We are on the right track now. Just give us more time.

Much ado about nothing

The other ‘distraction’ technique, much used this week, is to make a big splash policy announcement which turns out to be neither a policy nor an announcement. Gillian Keenan’s mobile phone ban which turns out not to be a ban at all (because it will be non-statutory guidance which schools don’t have to follow) falls into this discredited category.

Leaders and teachers roll their eyes at this nonsense, not only because their school already has a mobile phone policy which generally works well but also because they know that there are far more serious threats to education quality which ministers are ignoring because they have no political will to do anything about them.

The appalling state of England’s school buildings with an £11.4 billion repair backlog is just one example of an inconvenient truth that Gillian Keegan wants to ignore (although the RAAC debacle has made that impossible). So she turns to the phoney enemy of mobile phones. Look at me, she says. I am doing something. Not that this is anything that needs to be done. What do you want? Effective government?

Impossible is nothing

The third distraction technique on offer is the ‘splash’ announcement which has no chance of being implemented. Rishi Sunak’s recent determination to replace A levels with an British baccalaureate is a prime example. The prime minister knows that curriculum reform on this scale takes years. And just like his already recycled idea of delivering maths for every student until they are 18, he also knows that it has zero chance of being realised given the parlous state of teacher recruitment and retention. 

This is not policy making with a purpose. It is policy announcement to distract – to be seen to be doing something. If the reports are right and the DfE knew nothing about this announcement, then the lack of serious intent to engage in much-needed curriculum and assessment reform becomes crystal clear.

Of course, these distraction techniques do not work. The general public may spend very little time thinking and talking about party politics but they do know which party has been in power for over a decade. They have eyes to look around them and see the general state of the decline of our towns and cities and the degradation of our public services and to come to a view represented by over a year’s opinion polls: that this lot have been in power long enough and have used it badly.

It’s time for serious government – but we won’t see that before the election, which we can only hope will deliver a team with a clear programme of action to rescue public services.

This lot have had their chance and have blown it. And no amount of distraction techniques will make a bit of difference – other than to perpetuate the decline for a few more months.

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