Hey, politicians. Don't promise us unicorns

The election campaign has given rise to extravagant promises, from all parties. It will only harm teachers, says Bernard Trafford

Bernard Trafford

Unicorn, with rainbow in the background

The 19th-century wit Sydney Smith, when asked what he thought heaven would be like, is said to have replied “trumpets and clotted cream”. 

Given my fondness for both jazz and that West Country delicacy, I’d love to believe Smith. But I can’t. 

If there is indeed a heaven, I don’t think it will be that simple. For a start, jazz heaven for me might be sheer hell for another. Or have I missed a theological-philosophical Sartrean contradiction, l’enfer, c’est les autres (hell is other people)?

This question is currently pertinent, because the election campaign is giving rise to extravagant promises from those who would win our votes. It seems that all our political parties, not just the largest two, are promising the earth: heaven on earth, indeed, with unicorns thrown in. 

Public-spending splurges

They promise spectacularly higher levels of funding for schools and the NHS – even if some cash, like the extra staffing, appears to include figures already in the pot. 

After a decade of austerity, I’m puzzled how public-spending splurges on so colossal a scale can possibly be afforded. The Institute for Fiscal Studies shares my scepticism.

Still, proper funding for schools is indeed essential – and is on the table from all the main contenders, if you can believe them. So what other policies might separate them for voters? 

One issue might be Ofsted. Labour and the Lib Dems have promised to revise or abolish the inspectorate (hurrah!), and to lighten up on testing (hurrah again!). Most teachers, weary of labouring under those burdens, would welcome that, so the proposals might win those parties some teacher votes.

But don’t rejoice too soon. Even before the election was announced, Tes’ own Ed Dorrell pointed out that the proposal is a vote-loser “out there”. Fed (and, too often, swallowing) the line that inspection, tests and league-tables furnish useful information when choosing a school for their child (until they fail to win their first-choice school, at any rate), most parents apparently like them. 

Zombie policy

Parents might even like the notion, trotted out yet again in the Tory campaign, of no-notice inspections. Ed describes it as a “zombie policy”: it’s regularly proposed, then deemed unworkable (most recently by Ofsted boss Amanda Spielman herself) and ultimately rejected, but it never entirely dies. 

Nonetheless, pushing it will help the Tories gild their pledge to increase funding with a claim to be driving up standards, while the opposition parties are going soft on standards.

Proponents of “dawn raids” claim that inspectors simply turning up one morning will remove the fear and expectation that surround an Ofsted visit. It won’t. 

Schools can work out when they’re due an inspection. Currently, they’re given half a day to produce the reams of required information. That task’s hardly less impossible than no-notice, so schools anticipating Ofsted’s arrival already stockpile data, all created by teachers chasing paper instead of focusing on kids’ learning.

Cynicism or blind stupidity? 

Lurking behind the dawn-raid plan is the suggestion that, given notice, schools will somehow game the system. After all, it’s sometimes claimed, food-hygiene inspections occur without notice: the kitchen should be up to scratch every day without fail.

Fair enough. Rules and regulations for kitchen hygiene are numerous, but essentially procedural. By contrast, schools and schooling comprise thousands or millions of personal interactions in every school each week, and “outputs” are subjective, individual and variable. They cannot (or should not) be reduced to a tick-list.

Nonetheless, the Tories will try, once again, to do that very thing. Are they proposing this cynically? Possibly: they may pick up votes that way. 

More likely, though, my friend and former colleague Sir Anthony Seldon, now vice-chancellor of Buckingham University, nailed the truth this week. In a dramatic plea to turn education on its head (including a rather impressive headstand), he declared that “education ministers are fundamentally stupid”. Conservative Party HQ is currently proving Sir Anthony right. 

Whether it’s cynicism or blind stupidity in command, this kind of get-tough rhetoric will deliver not educational trumpets and cream – or even unicorns – but merely further harm to teachers and schools.

Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher. He tweets @bernardtrafford

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Bernard Trafford

Bernard Trafford

Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher

Find me on Twitter @bernardtrafford

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