The Conservatives will, no doubt, claim their education policies will collectively deliver “the great meritocracy” they promise in today’s manifesto.
However, the use of that phrase sets the scene for the debate which will rage, if the Tories are re-elected, over one policy in particular – the expansion of selective schools in England.
The manifesto says the Tories want to make Britain “a country where everyone has a fair chance to go as far as their talent and their hard work will allow, where advantage is based on merit not privilege.” But the problem with the expansion of selective schools is what happens to all the young people who don’t go to them.
In the 1950s, it might have arguably been the case that we needed a small, highly-educated elite to run the country while many people worked in unskilled and semi-skilled jobs, but that is no longer the case. To be globally competitive, we need to be good at lots of things. We need a workforce with a range of skills in many sectors. We need innovators and entrepreneurs, linguists and artists, technicians and engineers and so on.
In short, we need an education system which benefits everybody. And we already have that system. It is called comprehensive education. And contrary to the perception of some people, it is very successful. In fact, 79 per cent of secondary schools are already judged as outstanding or good by Ofsted, and most of these are comprehensives.
Everybody wants to raise standards even further. But the most logical way of doing so is to understand what problems are holding back progress in some areas and to apply approaches which are evidence-based. This must surely be a better option than a policy of increased selection, which the evidence indicates will have a negative impact on the attainment of the majority of young people who do not attend a selective school.
Of course, what would most help support schools in their efforts to raise standards further is sufficient funding and teacher supply, and there are currently significant problems in both of these vital areas.
Costs squeeze means increase is not enough
The Conservatives today pledged to increase the overall schools budget by £4 billion by 2022, “representing more than a real terms increase for every year of the parliament”. That sounds like good news, but there is a problem. They will need most of this money to fund a big rise in pupil numbers, leaving just over £1 billion "extra" for school funding. As schools are being hit with cost pressures which will rise to £3 billion a year by 2020, it is easy to see that this is not enough. The situation in post-16 education is even worse, where funding levels are very low. Today’s manifesto promises more investment in technical education, but ignores general provision.
There is better news on teacher supply, though still far more to be done. The Conservatives have promised what they call “forgiveness” on student loan repayments to help attract people into teaching. This is a suggestion made by ASCL. Our proposal is that the government should commit to pay off the annual repayment of tuition fee and maintenance loans owed by teachers for as long as they remain in the state school system. This loan could be written off entirely after a certain period – ten years, for instance.
And then there is the English Baccalaureate. The Conservatives remain determined that 90 per cent of young people should take this suite of subjects, although there is a slight concession that it will initially be 75 per cent. The fact that there are simply not enough specialist teachers in the education system to deliver this target is apparently not deemed to be a barrier to this unrealistic and impractical aspiration.
We are not sure what “a great meritocracy” looks like – as presented here, it looks to be elitist and ill-suited for the nation’s post-Brexit economic and social needs.
Our aspiration is for an education system which is for the common good and which helps all young people to achieve to their full potential.
And on that test, today’s manifesto falls short.
Geoff Barton is the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton. For more information, read ASCL’s 2017 General Election Manifesto
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