'Teachers' trust being squandered by a misleading DfE'

Confidence in ministers doing what they say they will do is being eroded with every new announcement, writes William Stewart

William Stewart

Tes magazine debrief podcast: How has trust between teachers and the government collapsed?

It has to be one of the bleakest statistics I have seen in this job.

When Tes asked teachers and other school staff about their levels of confidence in the Department for Education’s decisions and policies on coronavirus, half of them – a shocking 50 per cent – said they had no trust. They didn’t trust the DfE in this crucial area “at all”.

Tellingly, the instant reaction from teachers when they first saw that figure in our headline was shock for ­­­­­­­a different reason. "What about the other half?’ they asked. ‘How could they possibly feel any differently?’

In fact, most of that other half – 39 per cent of the total – said they only had “limited trust”. So, the full picture was bleaker still – the overwhelming majority of school staff, 89 per cent, lacked trust in the government department running our education system on the most pressing issue of the day.

And that wasn’t all. The results from another Tes question show that this distrust isn’t confined to coronavirus policy, and that it is getting worse. When asked if their general level of trust in the DfE had changed since the outbreak had begun – nearly three-quarters (72 per cent) of the 3,400 school staff in England who responded said it had dropped, and most (53 per cent) said it had dropped “significantly”.


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Ministers might well argue that it is unfair to make too much of these worrying figures. After all they have come at a time when they have had to deal with the fall-out from an unprecedented crisis not of their own making that has been testing governments across the globe.

They might even argue that these figures are not really about government competence or trustworthiness at all. They might suggest that they are more likely to be measures of fear and frustration from a discombobulated, disorientated school workforce scared and anxious about being put on the Covid frontline, and feeling bruised by public and media criticism of their performance.   

It sounds like a credible alternative explanation. But it falls apart in an instant when you compare the level of trust that school staff in England have in the DfE with that of their counterparts in the UK’s other three countries.

England's DfE has biggest UK trust deficit by far

The Tes survey found that in Wales, only 19 per cent of school staff said they had no trust at all in their government's education department on coronavirus. In Scotland, the figure was 24 per cent, in Northern Ireland, it was 41 per cent – all three significantly better than England’s 50 per cent.

So this trust deficit doesn’t really seem to be about the impact of coronavirus on school staff. It’s about the DfE and how it has responded to the outbreak.   

Does the lack of trust matter? Yes I think it does, hugely. Of course, government departments are run by politicians, and school staff have their own political views. So you are always likely to have large sections who disagree with the administration of the day.

But trust is a more fundamental issue and such a lack of it points to a deeper problem. Political disagreement is a normal part of any functioning democracy. But can our state education system run properly if so many of those working in it have no faith at all in those taking the decisions? Might they ignore them when it's crucial? Might the levers of power stop working?

I don’t think we’re there yet. But it is worrying to even think we might be heading in that direction. The immediate, most recent causes seem fairly obvious. For schools, DfE responses to the coronavirus have matched the pattern set by the rest of government – in that promises have not been backed up by delivery.

Teacher trust erodes with each new DfE Covid announcement 

From the free school meals vouchers debacle and the frustration over free laptops to the fact that what was originally billed as a “huge” summer of catch-up will now not begin until the second half of next term – the last four months have seen teachers’ confidence that ministers will do what they say they’re going to do being eroded with every new announcement.

And while many teachers will have been pleased that school openings didn’t go ahead in June in the numbers government had planned – the fact that the DfE was unable to anticipate the problems and warn Number 10 that it was expecting the impossible has probably done the most damage of all.

Of course, it would be unfair not to acknowledge that ministers have found themselves in completely uncharted waters. We have no way of knowing whether any other administration would have stood up any better to these sudden tests – although evidence is already emerging that this one should have been better prepared.

But I don’t think the lack of trust in the DfE is solely down to its recent hapless coronavirus record. This isn’t just about cock-ups.

Last weekend,  Sunday Times columnist Matthew Syed wrote about how the Institute for Fiscal Studies director Paul Johnson had pointed out that chancellor Rishi Sunak’s "Rooseveltian additional £5.5 billion of capital spending” actually represented “an increase of precisely zero this year on budget plans” and was merely “a reallocation from one set of projects to another”.

 

 

For Syed, this amounts to “deceit at the heart of government”. And he argues the fact that we barely notice it anymore is a sign of “putrefaction” in Western civilisation so overpowering that it reaches China and Russia and encourages them to take advantage of the “decay” we fail to see for ourselves.

Corrosive impact of government trickery with funding figures

I’m not sure I would attempt to claim a direct link between China’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy and DfE spending claims. But Syed raises an important point about the corrosive impact of such government trickery with funding figures.

At Tes, we also looked into a recent capital spending announcement by the government, and reached a very similar to conclusion to the IFS'.  At the end of last month, the prime the minister trumpeted £1bn as a "major new investment" in school rebuilding to "start in 2020-21 with the first 50 projects, supported by over £1bn in funding".

But we were able to establish that the money will not actually materialise until 2021-22. And even when it does, it is to be spread out over an unspecified number of "future years" and so is likely to represent only a small fraction of existing budgets, even if it is new funding.

Worse still, the DfE's capital budget for 2020-21 – the year the announcement suggested the £1 billion would start flowing – has actually cut been cut, twice.

Does the government care that misleading announcements like this will erode trust? It doesn’t seem to. When Tes called out DfE on the school building announcement, its response wasn’t to admit it had misled, or even to try and ignore the story. Instead it doubled down – challenging Tes with a misleading, inaccurate and at times bizarre “blog”.

We stand by every word of our story and you can read how we responded in the Twitter thread below.

But beyond the specifics of when the funding will come in and whether it is actually new, a wider point emerges from this encounter. The DfE doesn’t appear the slightest bit embarrassed by its misleading claims. The attitude seems to be that it doesn’t matter if some people realise that your approach is more than a little disingenuous, because if you continue to pursue it many more people will believe it anyway.

DfE triple-counts school funding claims

It is the same with the DfE’s claim of a “£14bn funding boost” for schools’ revenue budgets. There is no such thing – by the time the DfE’s full funding package has been introduced in 2022-23 schools it will amount to an extra £7.1 billion a year. But because it has introduced this increase in stages across three years, the DfE has decided it is OK to double and then triple count these increments to produce a total nearly double the actual final annual funding boost.

Few journalists are falling for it. But the DfE continues to use the £14 billion figure over and again.

Of course, this administration is not the first to use this ingenious ruse to inflate spending increases. But when the Blair government was called out for a triple counting education funding at the turn of the century it ended up being quite big news, playing into concerns about New Labour spin.

Today, we merely give a collective shrug. It’s what we expect. It seems to be deliberate government policy born out of the lessons learned from the success of posting a notorious “misleading” claim on the side of a bus. Get out your disingenuous distortion early enough and repeat it often enough and people will be taken in.

Or, at least some people are taken in, to start with. But in the long term, as the Tes survey findings suggest, these tactics do erode trust. And once that is lost, it may be impossible to get it back.

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William Stewart

William Stewart

William Stewart is News editor at Tes

Find me on Twitter @wstewarttes

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