Election 2024

The Conservatives’ manifesto is a blueprint for a collapsing house

These are policies for the managed decline of education rather than a charter for the renewal it so desperately needs

These are policies for the managed decline of education rather than a charter for the renewal it so desperately needs

20 Jun 2024, 18:23

It would be wrong to say that I was looking forward to the release of the Conservative manifesto with excitement and hope. Having been a headteacher throughout the past 14 years, I have formed my own views on the importance of education to this political party.

Yet even from such a low starting point, it managed to disappoint me. It is profoundly lacking in vision, purpose and optimism. When I first read it, I quipped that it was akin to putting up a conservatory on a condemned house. Having re-read it a few times, it’s worse than that.

Education is a perennial fixer-upper. Witness the long list of secretaries of state since 2010, each with their own desire to imprint their legacy on the sector. (Well, when they are there long enough, which has been thankfully seldom.)

Whether you believe that it is tweak or change time, it is clear in terms of funding, an overarching 10-year strategy (Hint: we don’t have one), buildings, admissions and SEND that we face many, significant structural issues. This is less a paint job and more dry rot.

So what are the big ideas that we have been presented with?

On the face of it, the Advanced British Standard has some merits. We have a very narrow post-16 offer which does need to be addressed. However, this is the equivalent of installing a hot tub when you don’t have a working toilet; it’s squandering funding and airtime for yet another public-school inspired vanity project. There is a time and a place for this form of development. It is not now, and it is not here.

In terms of SEND and high needs, it is not just frustrating but outright insulting that there is so little promised in terms of reform, funding or provision. Here, there was an opportunity to move away from a system which isn’t just creaking but collapsing. Yet there is very little to suggest this is even remotely a priority for the Conservatives’ education agenda.

It’s like installing a hot tub when you don’t have a toilet

Then, sticking with the house renovation metaphor, they’ve decided to take the stairs out. Evidently, only people born on the top floor deserve to be there. Incredibly, and I cant ever remember this happening before, the manifesto calls for less higher education.

With a culture-wars themed reproach of ‘poor-quality’ courses, universities are seen as either manufacturing expensive and worthless degrees or of being an open door for migrants – apparently the reason we can’t have nice things in this country.

Either way, this response from a major party is utterly extraordinary. My only surprise is that we have commented so little on this. I cannot help but smell the soft bigotry of low expectations watching a party campaign for less education and portraying universities as a problem rather than a solution.

If this manifesto is a blueprint, there’s more to be found in its negative spaces than its arbitrary lines. Since 2010, real-terms pay cuts have significantly dented the attractiveness of the profession. It is a surprise to nobody but Conservative ministers that we now find ourselves in a recruitment and retention crisis. 

Yet there are no ambitions on pay and recruitment. The unspoken message is either “we either don’t care” or “we’re not going to be in power to do anything anyway”. These points are not mutually exclusive.

The only ray of hope on funding is that we will have fewer children, so all will be well. Oddly, there is some logic here. With more trust, it could be a valid and sensible way to look at how we rebalance around substantial demographic shifts. Instead, what we are offered is just another tone-deaf approach to the sector and the very real issues it faces.

Come to think of it, when it comes to this manifesto, we are all RAAC schools. What we need is an architect to tell us what must change, how long it will take and what it will cost to stop the roof from tumbling down. And what we have is a government happy to see us dwell in temporary classrooms.

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