Nobody votes for education. So goes the political mantra.
It explains why conference season was such a thoroughly bland affair for anyone with education on their minds. Unless you go for fringe slanging matches and empty rhetoric, that is. Labour and the Conservatives had their shot and I’ve been left feeling weightless, such is the near-vacuum emptiness of it all, in spite of the gravity of the problems facing our schools.
Still, there’s a different flavour to each kind of emptiness on offer – smells from the kitchen that give a foretaste of what the respective canteens are dishing up.
The Labour Party promise us a National Education Service. The policy first graced its manifesto in 2017, but has been Angela Rayner’s remit since she took the education brief under Jeremy Corbyn. Two years in, and the policy is still in a fledgling state. The emptiness Labour offer education is the kind that abhors a vacuum, one full of potential, but also full of dangers. Anyone can read into it whatever suits their particular priority or grievance with the government. While this may encourage educationally minded voters who have no faith in the Conservative project, it can easily backfire for obvious reasons.
Nevertheless, we have a skeleton of a scheme. We hear that the free-schools policy will end, and loud noises off about the abolition of Ofsted. Few, on the left at least, will cry about the former. The latter is excellent fodder for overworked teachers who have been told for years that the source of all their ills is the inspectorate, and disgruntled communities who have seen their schools disrupted by its more perverse effects. We even have some idea of what might replace it – local improvement partnerships.
What is the National Education Service?
Yet there is little flesh on the bones in respect of how this new, more supportive model will be appointed or held accountable. Two years into floating a National Education Service, one might’ve hoped for more substance, especially as this seems to be the main mechanism by which academies will be brought back "into the orbit" of their communities. How this squares with the continued existence of multi-academy trusts, or even begins to tackle some of the most egregious excesses that the MAT model has permitted, is left blank.
It is the emptiness of an exam paper before the pupils have had a crack at it. Promising. And dreadful.
On the Conservative side, the emptiness is more reminiscent of an empty tank. The empty tank of a stolen car that ought to have been right there, parked on your drive. The Conservatives have run out of opportunities to run out the excuse that we have run out of money. Instead, they are left trotting out highly questionable statistics about school funding to play down protest from headteachers.
In the midst of this entropy of political vision, some light persists. Education secretary Damian Hinds has promised us £10 million to improve behaviour, and a further £5 million to improve careers advice. Tickety-boo, then. Once we’ve sorted those two, everything will be fine. The first tranche will bribe teachers to stay in the profession and the second will bribe students to join it, and in one fell swoop the recruitment and retention crisis will be over.
The Conservatives' 'dodgy' statistics
Joking aside though, in this election cycle the Conservatives’ brand is crisis, and their PR is entirely geared towards owning that crisis while the numbers can still be made to look good. (Remember those dodgy stats.)
Nowhere is this more evident than workload. (Not that it got a single mention in Damian Hinds’ conference speech.)
Now, I’m not naive. Owning the workload crisis doesn’t mean taking responsibility for it. In PR terms, what it does mean is shifting blame and being the ones to offer solutions. First, they blamed academics. Now, they blame Ofsted and Ofsted responds by blaming poor leadership. Teachers so far seem happy that there’s at least one blame cascade they’re not at the bottom of.
The aim isn’t so much to win votes as not to lose them.
In the end, it doesn’t matter how many teachers feel that the system isn’t working, so long as they are more inclined to want a good, long rest from structural upheaval than they are to organise through their unions and march for their working conditions.
When half a million teachers turn out to vote (and well over a quarter of a million qualified teachers who could teach, but choose to teach no longer), will they vote for the biggest educational shake-up since 1944? The Conservative bet is that they won’t; that they are running on empty. They may be right.
It is the emptiness of the gym hall after another policy-laden, whole-school inset as you head back to your classroom.
We’ve yet to hear from the Liberal Democrats. Expect some very well thought-through policies from Layla Moran. Perhaps it’s easier to listen when the pressure is lower. When all the polls say that your best chance of power is a coalition, your policies are more geared for negotiation.
Perhaps there’s something to be learned from that by the education system as a whole.
Perhaps, once the conference season is over and done with, a conference call might be in order.
As headteachers showed last week, crisis may not be our brand, but it is our reality, and just because nobody votes for education, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously.
JL Dutaut is a teacher of politics and citizenship and co-editor of Flip The System UK: a teachers’ manifesto, published by Routledge