“One billion pounds!”
No. Not Dr Evil holding the country to ransom, but Michael Gove’s campaign HQ this week as they attempted to show Conservative members three things: that he is "over the detail", that he can convince voters austerity is over while continuing the programme, and that he can neutralise the threat of a constituency he left with a bitter taste in its mouth.
“One billion pounds more for our schools!” Stick that on the side of a bus.
Not to be outdone, frontrunner Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson took very little time to respond. His first domestic policy announcement was to promise that per-pupil funding would rise under his Premiership to £5,000.
“£5,000 a year on every pupil!”
Not so bus-worthy, to be honest. But that isn’t the point.
Policy announcements aren’t really about what politicians intend to implement any more. They’re advertising of the kind Apple revolutionised PR with. They’re aspirational, communicative, strategic. That is to say, they aren’t even lies, because they don’t really pretend to be the truth. That’s what "post-truth" means: a world where nothing is anchored, and the determinant of political success is the ability to spin a yarn – and to keep spinning it.
Tackling Johnson’s announcement, like others have, shows that it’s only a £200 increase for some and no increase at all for most, that the total spend is a puny £48 million compared to Gove’s £1bn, and you are wasting your time. Worse, perhaps. You are doing his PR work for him.
The takeaway, regardless of coverage, is this:
- Johnson – who is being taken to court for allegedly making false claims during the referendum campaign – keeps his claims realistic
- Johnson – who was betrayed by Gove – will not be outflanked by Gove.
Education policy is making a comeback
There is another takeaway: education policy is making a comeback. We won’t be suffering the tepid leadership of the Golden Hinds much longer. Change is afoot. Keen observers will know that the Tories realised the need to renew their education "offer" a while back. Conservative Home even ran a piece by Paul Goodman this February entitled "Conservative education policy is up for grabs".
The grabbing has begun.
So, should we get excited? Oh, yes. We should. And what they’re worried about is that we will.
The sums on offer are piteous. Even Gove’s billion would get us nowhere near pre-2010 funding. These announcements are the final death knell for the idea that austerity was a temporary process to redress the nation’s finances. There is no intention to return to historic levels of funding. There never was. It was only a convenient excuse to "roll back the frontiers of the state".
Neither are these announcements intended to redress the crises battering our school system. The grammar school policy is ready to rear its ugly head, divorced from any pretence of evidence-based, ideology-free policy, and devoid of any impetus to help our most vulnerable students, who have disproportionately borne the brunt of education policy for nearly a decade.
How many of the Conservative and Unionist Party’s 100,000 members are teachers? How many of England’s 500,000 teachers are Conservative members? I imagine this is a Venn diagram with a vanishingly small overlap.
No, these announcements are not for us. They are designed to neutralise education in the public consciousness, to prevent legitimate concerns from gaining traction if and when they are raised, and to delegitimise the opposition parties’ growing calls for radical alternatives.
And that’s exactly why we should get excited. Now, when education is up for grabs, is the time for us to find our solidarity and to demand better for each other and our students: a better recruitment and retention strategy, a better accountability system, a more just education system that truly supports its most vulnerable schools and students to be all they can be.
Attacking Gove and Johnson’s policies on the details is a loser’s game, but teachers can win this election and the next by attacking them the way Gove did our unions in 2010 – by decrying the soft bigotry of their low expectations.
This, colleagues, is the great cause of our times.
JL Dutaut is co-editor of Flip the System UK: a teachers' manifesto (Routledge). He is currently on a career break from teaching to research school accountability systems around the world. He hasn't found one he likes yet, and he doesn't think you would either