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‘One thing worse than a politician not interested in schools is one who is’

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The longer I work in schools, the more frequently I misquote Oscar Wilde’s famous aphorism about being talked about (or not). There is only one thing worse in the world than politicians not being interested in education, and that is politicians being interested in it (let alone discovering they have a passion for it).

How well I remember Tony Blair proclaiming in 1997 that he had three priorities: education, education, education. With a rare touch of humour, David Cameron countered in 2010 that his priorities were the same, but not in that order.

Both elections saw hopes for education raised and dashed. After Blair’s victory, successive secretaries of state for education, far from clipping the wings of the inspectorate, strengthened it and harassed and harried schools. They gave rise to one initiative after another, arbitrarily imposed.

Post-2010, the Tories’ Lib-Dem coalition partners proved toothless in any attempt to curb the exuberance of Michael Gove, who was on a very personal mission. To be sure, the academies programme continued (I haven’t a problem with that); free schools came along, too. But the bullying of schools and teachers continued, driven by Gove’s messianic approach. In the end, this alienated so many people that David Cameron identified him as a liability rather than a vote-winner and moved him out.

And now, here we are again. Another five years, another election. Education is not the political football in this election that it has been in the last couple; I guess we should be grateful for that. But still it rears its head.

Both Labour and the Conservatives claim to be protecting the funding of schools, using two different formulas, both ambivalently worded and open to interpretation (seemingly saying they leave space for reneging on promises when money gets tight). There’s no clarity from Labour on exam reform; no U-turns on that topic from the Tories; and no party going near a sensible or fair funding formula for maintained schools.

Still, if you want some clarity, look no further than the Greens and Ukip. The Green Party will dismantle all the remaining grammar schools and absorb them into a totally comprehensive system; they’ll pull the independents in too, or close them. By contrast, Ukip will create selective grammar schools wherever anyone wants them. There’s a clear choice, then – only neither of those parties will end up running the country (at least, I hope not).

Where does the electoral murk leave children, and those who try to educate them despite the interference of our political masters? It’s hard to say. Last week there was an elephant in the room, a pachyderm of such hugeness that the failure of any party to recognise it leaves me breathless.

Primary school places were announced: some families will be happy, while many won’t. More to the point, it’s clear that in the next few years a quarter of a million additional children will need primary places, and there appears to be no strategy to deal with it. Oh, and it’s clear we won’t have enough teachers in any case, as recruitment is in meltdown.

Call me old-fashioned, but I thought we had governments (local or national) to sort such things out: to look ahead, see challenges approaching, plan the solutions and then implement them. We pay our taxes and should be able to rely on government to do something about this situation, to expand schools or open new ones. But they don’t.

They talk grand schemes. But is anyone going to do anything about this simple, rather tiresome problem: the fact that many parents can’t find schools for their children? I await enlightenment.

Instead, we’re plagued by personal missions, U-turns, dogmas and sheer ignorance – and central government remains ineffectual.

Against that backdrop, one proposal struck me as a powerful one. The National Education Trust produced a manifesto (weeks before the major parties produced theirs) recommending that education should be run by a director, free from political interference, in the way that the health service is.

No one can pretend the NHS is free of problems. But there is at least an overall national director who is able to speak out (as his predecessor did last week, declaring that the NHS is approaching a catastrophic funding crisis).

The presence of a national director won’t solve all the problems in education, just as it doesn’t in health. But it might prevent education secretaries from treating the service as their personal train set, because they would be faced by a lead professional, knowledgeable in the field and able to see precisely what the reality is.

If we could prevent the demagogues, the fanatics and/or the lunatic fringe from dictating education policy we just might afford some protection to schools and colleges, to the education of the young and to the very future of our country. 

Why not give it a try?

Bernard Trafford is headmaster of the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle.

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