Theresa May wants the public to believe three things: that her education policies mean more good school places, that they offer greater choice and control for parents, and that they will benefit those families who are just managing to get by. In reality, her solutions are superficial, undemocratic, and wasteful.
When it comes to grammar schools, the most hotly debated of the proposals, the evidence is against the prime minister. No matter how often she chants slogans at the despatch box about helping those from lower income backgrounds, evidence shows that grammar schools spend public funds on the privileged few.
Less attention has been drawn to the other proposals, specifically those relating to independent schools. According to these new policies, independent schools will need to do more to keep their charitable status, and the tax break that entails. The largest and best funded will have to either take in a proportion of students from low income households, or ensure the success of sponsored academies or a new free school. Smaller, less wealthy independent schools will be expected to cooperate with state schools through partnerships and resource sharing.
All of this amounts to little more than worthy window dressing around the expansion of selection at age 11.
There are a number of reasons why the prime minister’s promises are empty.
According to the Independent School Council, the body that represents most UK independent schools, 5,629 students received full means-tested bursaries or scholarships to ISC schools in 2016. This means that if the government demanded that independent schools double the number of students receiving full means-tested funding, and that every ISC school did so, the result of this policy would be a private school place for roughly an extra 0.066 per cent of England’s pupil population. Some students may receive non-means-tested funding, but this even rarer and often lower in value. So much for education for the many.
And in fact, the number would likely be even smaller. First, the 5,629 figure includes Wales and Scotland, while the government’s policies would only apply to England. Second, only the largest and wealthiest schools will be asked to fund more pupils, and even they can choose another option. This proposal generates a cheap headline to divert attention away from the bigger problems in our education system, such as teacher recruitment and the long tail of underachievement.
Furthermore, these proposals take choice and control away from parents.
If the larger, wealthier independent schools prefer, they can opt to manage a free school or sponsor an academy rather than offer more bursaries. The independent schools would not be required to offer any funding to the school, only to be responsible for “ensuring its success” in becoming ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ within a certain number of years. The cost of establishing any new free schools would be covered by the government, both capital and revenue.
Not only is this policy painfully vague, as is this prime minister’s wont, containing no details of the independent schools’ precise responsibilities, it is also a further move towards an undemocratic education system in England. Unlike independent schools, local authorities are democratically accountable. This policy doesn’t give parents more choice or control; it gives power over schools away to the very few, at the very top, without even detailing their responsibilities.
Ministerial and parliamentary time and resources are expensive, as is establishing new schools. Funding a superficial and undemocratic side-show will not benefit families who are just managing to get by. Roughly 7 per cent of children in England are currently privately educated. The other 93 per cent are not best served by offering scholarships to a tiny extra percentage of children, or by taking away their parents’ control over schools.
This inefficient policy is not a one off – the same goes for grammar schools too. A recent study from the Education Policy Institute states: “additional grammar schools are not a good intervention for raising average school standards”. Indeed, the EPI expresses concern that grammar school expansion would increase the aggregate attainment gap between wealthy and less wealthy children. This is far from the message of social mobility Theresa May would have us believe.
These proposals are based on outdated Tory ideology rather than expert evidence. Taxpayers’ money should be spent on reducing class sizes, improving teaching and leadership, and developing our national curriculum. We need better resources and equipment in our classrooms. We need to be recruiting, training, and retaining qualified teachers.
The one positive thing that can be said about this initiative, is that it draws into clear relief the difference between Labour and Tory approaches to education. We want every child to get a great education, whatever their background, and wherever they live. The Tories’ ambition extends no further than giving a great education to a selected few. Adding a handful to that selected few changes nothing, and ignores the real challenges in creating a better education system. Systemic change may be harder and more complicated, but it also benefits more people, more directly.
Education policy should aim to improve all schools, not sponsor a few; our children need great teaching, not headline-grabbing tokenism.
Kevin Brennan was minister of state for further education, skills, apprenticeships and consumer affairs with responsibilities in both the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills