Sarah Cunnane

Education doesn’t need more empty promises from politicians

The ‘what’ and ‘why’ are all very well – but without the strategic ‘how’, politicians’ pledges won’t help schools and colleges

We need more than promises from Boris

"Show your working."

These three words will be familiar to anyone who has ever taken an exam – including current Year 6 pupils, who will have seen the phrase multiple times during their Sats earlier this year. It is required of them because what pupils know is important, but it’s equally crucial to know how they got there.

Sadly, however, that notion of “how” is out of fashion elsewhere these days – particularly in politics. Too often, politicians talk only about the “what” and the “why”. I have nothing against what and why; they’re important. But without the “how” – the map – they’re meaningless.

The prime example of this at the moment is, depressingly and obviously, Brexit. Ministers’ promises and sloganeering – Brexit means Brexit, believe in Britain – are repeated with little immediate examination beyond either endorsement or mocking the sense of jingoistic pride it evokes for some.

It’s not always been this way. “Education, education, education” may have been trite, but it was accompanied by a plan of what New Labour wanted to accomplish for the nation’s schools and how they’d achieve it. And whatever teachers may say about Michael Gove, they cannot deny that he and his team came in with a fully formed ethos and thought-through policies for education.

But now, education is by no means immune to this trend towards a lack of detail. It’s why Jeremy Corbyn felt comfortable promising to scrap Sats, apparently on a whim. It’s why Layla Moran was happy to call for the abolition of Ofsted. It’s why Boris Johnson – via Matt Hancock – said he wanted to show teachers “love” by giving them pay rises. It’s not party political, it’s just political: Left, Right, Centre – wherever you look, you’ll notice an absence of “how”.

It’s here that I should raise a hand and admit my own profession’s culpability in this trend. While I think – not unbiasedly – that Tes is better than most, the truth is that, in the internet age, the need to be first can trump the need to be critical. In the chase for clicks, rankings and visibility, some journalists can put out news stories that focus on the what, not the how.

As a result, many politicians have increasingly started to articulate ideas because they sound good without critically engaging with whether they are good – or even feasible. They know the “what” is enough to get the coverage.

And I get it – it’s difficult: “how” is powerful, but it’s also incredibly slow-moving; while it’s puffing along, the what-and-why express has already been there and back in a tenth of the time. Take too long to examine the scenery, and you risk being too late to the station – or being accused by others of not even bothering to try to make the journey.

We do need to slow down, however. Take the ongoing Conservative leadership contest, which concludes this weekend. It’s been fantastic to see education breaking through to make a good showing in the potential prime ministers’ pitches. Stop and evaluate, though, and you realise how hollow the words sound. That schools and colleges are underfunded and that teachers should be paid more are statements with which few would disagree. But, as many in education will tell you, schools cannot survive on warm words about how vital they are. Colleges cannot subsist on speeches about their crucial role in building tomorrow’s workforce. They need – they deserve – a plan.

It is simply not good enough that we are asking more of our nation’s 11-year-olds than we are of our elected representatives. So, to everyone promising to do more for, do better in or do away with any aspect of education, I say: thank you for engaging. Now, show your working.


This article originally appeared in the 19 July 2019 issue under the headline “Education doesn’t need more empty promises – it needs a plan”

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