‘Mixed bag’ Conservative manifesto has surprises and threats

Coming last in the publication of your manifesto has its advantages. Other parties have shown their hand. You can tweak your messaging accordingly, exploiting the weaknesses of your opponents.

After school funding pledges from Labour and the Liberal Democrats, many school leaders were keen to see if the Conservatives would deliver. We’ve been clear for months: school budgets are at breaking point. The government response has always been that spending is at its highest level ever, dismissive of the fact that pupils numbers and costs are rising.

Today that messaging changed. A commitment to deliver £4 billion by 2022 is an admission that funding levels are not adequate. But it’s not enough.

The National Audit Office asks for an extra £3 billion a year by 2020. Schools will still need to make impossible funding choices in coming years that will result in fewer teachers, larger classes and a narrower curriculum.

However, be in no doubt – parental concerns and union voice are, it appears, finally cutting though.

There are a few worrying elements within the main policy proposals. The return of key stage 3 SATs, long since abandoned, comes under the veiled threat to “improve schools’ accountability at key stage 3. School leaders will look on in dread. The government want children to learn their times tables. So do we. They don’t need extra tests to make it happen.

The expansion of grammar schools, with the heat taken out by months of briefing, is included. At a time when there are bigger and more pressing priorities in education, covering funding, recruitment, assessment, the curriculum, and pupil wellbeing, this is an unwelcome distraction. Another structural reform at the expense of the poorest pupils will be met with horror. If this policy proposal turns into a government policy, we will oppose it.

On recruitment and retention, the manifesto is very quiet indeed. We need to lift the public sector pay cap that is creating a crisis in the recruitment and retention of school leaders. Without this, we cannot compete with other graduate professions to ensure the brightest and the best are teaching our pupils. The pledge to offer forgiveness on student loan repayments is a welcome move and one we have been asking for.

But this is far short of a national recruitment and retention strategy school leaders know is needed.

The pledge to ensure 75 per cent of pupils have been entered for the EBacc combination of GCSEs by the end of the next parliament is a welcome reduction of the original 90 per cent figure the current government was aiming for.

Yet EBacc is still an unnecessary accountability measure and driving pupils towards choices that are not right for all of them.  School leaders should be able to put the needs of their students first, and no one benefits from this further narrowing of the curriculum.

The planned prohibition on councils from creating any new places in schools that have been rated either ‘inadequate’ or ‘requires improvement’ by Ofsted could see local place shortages reach crisis point – and if we agree that new places should only be created in good schools, then that should apply to expanding academies too. But more fundamentally, if local authorities have the responsibility for school place planning but no ability to require academies to take more pupils, then there will not be the sufficient places we need. We need a more joined up approach here.

All in all, this manifesto delivers some surprises (funding), some negative but expected changes (grammar schools), some threats (key stage 3 SATs) and some disappointing omissions (recruitment and primary assessment).

This is a mixed bag that’s likely to receive more negative headlines than positive. And rightly so.

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