Politicians, don’t pander to parents, tune in to teachers
The educational is inevitably political, but it’s important to listen to school staff: they know whereof they speak
People often ask: why can’t politics be taken out of education? The answer is that education is far too important. In fact, taking education out of politics would be a serious loss. There are more than 8 million pupils in English schools. That’s potentially 17 million parents, not to mention grandparents. Put bluntly, the total is comfortably more than half of the 38 million registered to vote in England.
For the Conservatives, though, teachers are a little tricky, being generally left-leaning as a group. Let’s not forget, it wasn’t long ago that Michael Gove was forced out as education secretary by prime minister David Cameron before an election because he was unpalatable to the teaching profession. Let’s not forget, either, that he was replaced by Nicky Morgan as the sweetener. How times change.
Therefore, no one should be surprised that, as we approach a febrile autumn with both Brexit and a general election in the offing, education is once again becoming a political battleground.
The first shot came with the announcement of a funding boost from the chancellor and various proposals from the Department for Education via a “leaked” – read this as a “let’s put it out there and test the reaction” – document that contains both carrot and stick (see tes.com/news). There’s the promise of more funding for schools and increased pay for teachers, and behaviour and exclusion policies to keep children in line. As others have pointed out, few of these measures are new; they already exist in one form or another.
Some details are downright silly or insulting, such as encouraging school leaders to ban or confiscate mobile phones. What do they think happens now? And what’s next – encouraging school leaders to get children to line up?
Other proposals are downright dangerous – offering explicit support for headteachers who use “reasonable force” in their efforts to improve discipline. This is just shameless pandering to the bring- back-corporal-punishment lot. I bet my version of reasonable is very different from yours. Defining that word will be almost impossible and will probably end up in the courts, but not before some unpleasant episodes.
This will be the first of many salvos. Most will be fired with parents and the right wing of the Tory party in mind. Apart from money, little will resonate with teachers.
But how much of a carrot is the money, really? Obviously teachers want schools to be funded properly and to earn a decent wage. However, that is not their main motivation. What concerns them most is children. That’s why they do what they do. And this is happening against a background where the Children’s Society has warned children’s happiness is at its lowest level in 25 years, CAMHS have been cut to the bone and youth services have all but vanished.
If I ever doubted that motivation, it was brought home to me forcibly this week. I asked a question on social media about a pupil I know who failed all but one of her GCSEs following the death of her mother. I did not expect the response I received. I was inundated with advice and, above all, kindness from teachers who did not know this child but who wanted to help.
That’s what makes teachers special. And that’s why politicians are going to have to work much harder to win them over. They can pander all they like to parents but it would be folly to forget schools have the power to sway them, as evidenced in the last election.
When parents are asked about education in their child’s school, the answer is nearly always positive. Ask them about education nationally and the answer is not. There’s a good reason for this. The former is run by heads and teachers, the latter by politicians. Parents know which ones they trust.
This article originally appeared in the 30 August 2019 issue under the headline “Politicians pander to parents but winning over teachers is key”