Tom Bennett: Quo vadis? Where next for education?

15th May 2015 at 17:05

If there's one thing this election proved yet again, it was that no one knows anything. One minute Ed Miliband is brushing up on his Highland dancing and picking out curtains for the Cobra room, the next he's shooting tequila through his tear ducts in Ibiza. Politics is a dirty rollercoaster, and the election wasn't exactly a model of civility either. But there was one noticeable absence in the whole imbroglio: education. It just didn't exist. If you heard what parties had to say on the matter, you had to listen carefully. After all, what's £92 billion from the GDP? Barely worth a mention, apparently.

One reason was that for the two big beasts in England, common ground had been formed; it would have been suicide to snarl and chew at policies that they themselves were backing. Academies, for example: not only are they not going away, but both Labour and the Conservatives have got behind the program. Labour, of course, started the academies programme under Tony Blair, but it's become a very different animal.

From the Tories:

• Allow charities, parent and teacher groups, and co-operatives to establish academies – schools that are state funded but independent of local authority control

• Allow every existing school – including primaries – to seek academy status

• Force schools that are in special measures for more than a year to be taken over immediately by a successful academy provider

And Labour:

• Continue roll-out of academies independent of local authority control

It's like listening to John Culshaw interviewing Tom Baker on radio and wondering who is who. For free schools, insert "parent-led academies". I'm still trying to work out the difference. Given that the academy program is one of the most significant educational interventions since 1988, and one of the few that parents might actually have heard of, it's remarkable how in harmony Labour and the Conservatives are. They have clearly worked out that, a few determined islands of resistance aside, most voters are happy for schools to be removed from LEA control. Or perhaps it simply didn't matter to many of them; the issue of who runs schools remains for many a fairly academic point, remote from the school run and a distant second to school uniform prices in their issue ranking. Either way, academies: coming to a street corner near you. And now that David Cameron's back, probably a free school or two, too. Cameron announced before the election that a Conservative government would open 500 more free schools over the next five years and would turn every failing and coasting secondary school into an academy. So edu-tourists might want to hop back on their jolly jets and go back to Sweden and America, where such things are even more embedded. And while they're at it, they can work out exactly how the slimmed down DfE is going to have the capacity to intervene with all of these coasting schools. I suspect it'll be like not paying your TV licence: you know that you might get caught, but if there aren't any vans in your street, you're probably safe for a bit.

One area where clear water can be seen was the issue of teacher certification; Michael Gove jettisoned the requirement to possess a discrete teacher qualification, and Tristram Hunt has nailed his colour to the mast to restore it. It was a popular and easy win for Hunt, against a move which, despite its good intentions, many saw as a dilution of the profession and a mark of disrespect. It's certainly true that a teaching qualification is no gurantee of quality, but that's a sign that the qualification process needs tightening, not an argument to do away with it (and it's something that's being looking at, post-Carter Review – watch this space). If anything, teacher training needs to become far, far more focused on the aspects of the job that make the most demands on teachers, particularly new ones: subject knowledge, behaviour management, time management. And CPD needs not a facelift, but a head transplant; it needs to become coherent with ITT; teacher-led as much as school-driven; and delivered by quality-certified institutions. Personally, I'd like to see teacher CPD entitlement partially offered in a voucher form, to be spent by the recipient. Unless, of course, you don't trust teachers? It couldn't be any worse than the curate's omelette that currently exists. Now the Tories have a majority, expect a tightening up of teacher-training entry requirements too.

What about the toughest schools? There was some daylight between the two parties: the Conservatives want to give headteachers the freedom to offer more money to good teachers, which could include those in hard schools; Labour were to offer £10,000 "golden handcuffs" to attract the best teachers to the most challenging schools. Both parties had committed to looking seriously at behaviour in schools, and the Tory manifesto includes a pledge to ensure that teachers are trained to deal with serious and low-level disruption. I hope to heavens this is more than gas; behaviour has been the elephant in the classroom for decades, easy to ignore by policy makers and senior leaders alike, but impossible when you're a frontline teacher and it's Groundhog Day and Judgement Day for you simultaneously, all the time. The Conservatives have pledged to "make it easier for teachers to use 'reasonable force' to deal with violence", which is fine, but isn't that much of a deal; teachers aren't struggling because we don't know how or when to piledrive kids. What's needed is better training in behaviour management, and a focus on whole-school systems that support teachers rather than undermine them. They also pledged to scrap the exclusions appeals process, and we'll have to wait and see what that turns out like. It's been far too easy for even the most challenging of students to bounce back into schools that aren't appropriate for them. That said, there is a reason we have an appeals process, and I hope we don't lose the good with the bad here.

Funding-wise, schools are staring down a barrel: the pledge to protect school funding per pupil will still result in a decrease in real terms. Labour had promised to protect it in line with inflation, and cut university fees to 6K – although, once again, when it comes to election promises, it's easy for both to spend money on things that may never come to pass – the Bank of Tomorrow is famously lenient.

Other things we can expect: key stage 2 Sats to be retained, obviously, although the idea that pupils below the threshold should resit them is winning hearts and minds nowhere. Curriculum reform seems to be off the agenda, which will please many. Gove was the piledriver that Conservative strategy saw as necessary to knock down the walls of orthodoxy; in many ways his battles over the last Parliament were our generation's Miners' Strike, which I suppose makes him Maggie Thatcher. Now, Nicky Morgan has been installed to soothe and succour. Time will tell if she does, and if the Workload Survey was more than an exercise in appearing to listen (she asked: we answered. "WE'RE VERY VERY BUSY," we said.).

It could have been worse: Ukip would have brought back grammar schools (which, apart from repatriation for people with funny surnames, is possibly the most Ukip policy ever), scrapped sex education from primary schools (yeah, because that's why young people have underage sex: excruciating diagrams and groovy PAL days); the Greens – fingers on the pulse as ever – wanted to scrap all academies and even made a pledge to use learning styles. I'm not making this up. I'm beginning to think that maybe education isn't their natural policy heartland.

Whatever is in store for the next five years, it is sure to be an interesting time for education. Hold on to your IWB remotes, everyone.