The Conservative party has achieved much in education, says Steve Mastin, but school funding has become a huge distraction
If you’re a teacher who will never consider voting Tory, then best look away now. I discovered my support for Conservative principles when I was at secondary school, around the time the communists crushed democracy supporters in Tiananmen Square.
Despite being a proud Conservative activist there are some things I find uncomfortable about my party: the handful of colleagues who support the death penalty, for example, or those – thankfully a dwindling number – who can’t see that a return to grammar schools would inevitably create secondary moderns. And then there is the casual racism of Boris Johnson, a man with so many strengths, but no principles.
I believe than Johnson is unfit to be my party’s next leader in so many ways. But when I asked a Corbyn-supporting teacher what he disagreed with about his dear leader’s party, there came the reply: “nothing”.
Being a party member should not have to mean slavish devotion. Conservatives have always encouraged members to express their views openly, which is why I have no qualms, as a state school teacher for the past 20 years, in arguing here that the current school funding crisis needs to be addressed urgently.
I am tired of hearing the party line on funding
School funding was generous when I started teaching in 1999; the downside was the incessant micro-management of schools by the then Labour government. By the time the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition came to power in 2010, I supported getting the finances under control because the cash had been splashed around in an unsustainable way. But there is a difference between cutting waste and biting into essential services such as schools. The NHS was rightly protected, but schools are now feeling a serious squeeze, and it’s one that is unsustainable.
So I am tired of hearing the party line uttered over and over again by ministers claiming that “school funding has increased year on year”. Technically true yes, but school leaders know that pupil numbers have risen over the same period, which means that funding has gone down in real terms.
The real-terms drop since 2015 is 4.6 per cent, leaving a serious hole in many schools’ budgets. Headteachers have had to reduce the number of teaching assistants, not replace retiring teachers or scrap their continuing professional development (CPD) budget.
My recent attendance at the Historical Association’s conference in Chester reminded me of the value of CPD and the reliance on teachers being given the time off to do it.
All in, the unrelenting squeeze on funding has reached the point where headteachers have had enough as we saw when many marched on London last September to say that it cannot be sustained.
Unfortunately, funding is eclipsing the enormous strides my party has made since 2010 to improve education. Let’s look at some of those achievements: exam reforms for example. Even many of my left-leaning friends agree that modular exams were exploited to gain a few extra marks; they needed to be abolished to restore faith in the system.
Coursework, meanwhile, was widely abused and contributed to unreasonable teacher workload, which is why the Conservatives scrapped it. Curricular freedom was encouraged for those schools who became self-governing academies. And the pupil premium for some of our most disadvantaged children, although suggested by the former Liberal Democrat minister David Laws, was championed by the Conservatives’ Nick Gibb and continues to be protected.
I’ll continue to preach about our achievements with brio, but school funding has become a huge and negative distraction. Damian Hinds, the education secretary, told a Conservative Education Society meeting earlier this month that he has implored Philip Hammond to increase education spending in the forthcoming spending review. I agree. But the chancellor needs to understand that it’s not “little extras” that schools are after. We want nothing short of fair funding.