Education was virtually absent from the Queen’s speech, but if this means little will change, it’s only a good thing, says Russell Hobby
For education, this year’s Queen’s speech was most interesting for its omissions. Given the weather, it was probably a blessing for all concerned that it was brief, and equally good for the Queen that it was apparently a non-uniform day for her. Dennis Skinner was also particularly keen that she wouldn’t miss any of the racing at Royal Ascot.
Many of us had speculated, following the dramatic election results and the elimination of the government’s majority, that controversial aspects of their manifesto would go missing. Many hoped for this. The Queen’s Speech was the first test of this and of the government’s response to the new political climate.
Cough in the wrong place and you could have missed the mention of education. She spoke of the need for every child to go to a good school, for fair funding and for a “major reform” of technical education.
The legislation required for overt expansion of new grammar schools is therefore off the table. This will please many, but the pressures behind this proposal have not disappeared. Grammars remain popular with a large chunk of the population – indeed the NatCen polling today suggests that over half of the public want them. This proposal was a casualty of the disastrous election campaign; it has not yet been defeated on its own terms. If we want to stop the eternal reoccurrence of the selection argument, we may need to understand better what is attractive about grammars and better communicate the damage they can do to the students who don’t attend them.
May has decided not to be known as a ‘meals snatcher’
May has decided not to be known as a “meals snatcher”, with universal infant free school meals set to remain. This is an expensive decision. If we were designing a school meals policy from scratch today we might not start from here. But having asked schools to rebuild kitchens, redeploy staff and adjust the timetable to fit multiple sittings, the majority of primary and infant heads I have spoken to want the policy to remain.
The brief mention of funding was that schools should be fairly funded. This could mean that the funding formula remains on the table (as David Laws predicted, and I didn’t, yesterday). My guess is that it will be a softer formula than originally planned if it does happen – as this wouldn’t require legislation. However, it wasn’t the formula that was the real problem but the amount of money coming to schools in the first place. We may have to await the budget for clarity on the volume of funding. In the meantime it would be wise for campaigners to keep up the pressure to prevent fudges or a reshuffling of existing budgets.
Of course we should remember that, although it gives signs of priorities and strategy, the Queen’s Speech really sketches out only the legislative agenda. Much of what matters in education is not dependent on legislation: rhetoric and tone, competence of management, delegated powers, pay policies, allocation of funding, league tables, building new schools of favoured types… a lot can happen, good and bad, that has no relation to what was said today. Reading a clear direction from what is not said is harder than responding to firm statements of intent: the absence of evidence of a policy is not evidence of the absence of the policy.
Don’t get me wrong though, the less unnecessary tinkering in the next few years the better. Brevity is good in all speeches, particularly this one. We don’t need the government to define our agenda for us, via legislation or otherwise. There are a few problems to solve, more money to find, and then they can put their feet up for a bit. I would tend to see this vacuum as an opportunity for schools to focus on the day job and for the profession to set the agenda. What would you like to focus on for the next few years?
Russell Hobby is general secretary of the NAHT