The Prime Minister's new proposals are eye catching but impossible to implementby Laura McInerney / February 2, 2015 / Leave a comment
David Cameron has set out his education stall today and what he’s selling is soundbites. Big, juicy, quite good sounding ones, but people in education will be tearing their hair out over their truthfulness.
A “war on mediocrity”—which Cameron is promising—is a great phrase. Who wants their child’s life to be average? Hours lost to boring geography teachers or stifling maths lessons is a pain most parents want to avoid for their offspring.
Hence Cameron has promised that if a school is “coasting” then he’s not going to have any more patience—he’s going to get in there, sack the leadership and bring in an academy chain to resolve it. After all, his party have said, the schools who’ve already completed their academy transformation are now improving faster than “other schools.”
Good soundbite, right? But that vague notion of “other schools” is a menace. Comparing the improvement rate in failing schools to all other schools is plain unfair. Bad schools are always likely to improve faster than already great ones; just like my tennis serve would improve rapidly if I started practising tomorrow, whereas Andy Murray would struggle to notch it up even slightly.
And who is supposed to take over from the leaders in these schools labelled by the school inspectorate as “requires improvement”—of which there are about 3,500? Last time anyone looked, there weren’t 3,500 headteachers stuffed down the back of sofa somewhere just waiting for the opportunity to take over a difficult school.
In fact, teachers are leaving the profession at an alarming rate. And stating, as Nicky Morgan did at the weekend, that leaders who fail to get 100 per cent of their children to learn times tables could face the chop, isn’t likely to help. Cameron’s call could be the final nail in several would-be leaders’ coffins.
Next up in Cameron’s speech were grand claims about free schools—normal, state-funded schools opened via a central government process in which Ministers decide who gets to start one, and where it will be, even if it overturns local planning decisions. Originally opened by parents, many of the later cohorts have been opened by charities and businesses.
“All the evidence shows, so far, that they work” Cameron proclaimed, beaming like Tony Blair in mid-90s stupor.
This is definitely true. Unless you read newspapers. In which case you would have seen just two weeks ago that Durham Free School is failing so comprehensively that education secretary Nicky Morgan announced it will close down. And this isn’t an isolated case—several other schools have either closed or had to be taken over. Whatever Labour will try to tell you, free schools have not been a failure. Most are doing pretty well, and they are helping to get schools opened quickly in the face of a terrifying number of newly-borns over the past five years. But there’s at least a little bit of evidence that says they don’t always work—if you only bother to look.
Perhaps the most important admission from Cameron today was not a sound-bite, but at least it was honest. Laying out a commitment to protect the schools budget he admitted that the pledge didn’t protect against inflation—nor did it cover the early years or 16-18 year old learners, a group that have already been hit hard over the past five years.
Hearing that the real-terms value of their budgets will reduce in the next few years won’t please school leaders. But given the sky-rocketing birth rates it’s a fair move.
By the end of the speech, there was only one soundbite missing. The weekend papers had trailed that Cameron would say that he wanted every pupil to have an education equal to his own. Possibly someone had alerted him to the fact that, because the iGCSE qualification popular with private schools isn’t being counted in league table calculations, Eton’s recent results would see them labelled as “under-performing” in the state sector.
And Cameron, it seems, would never want to recommend such apparent mediocrity to anyone.