Cameron's daft education speech is a bedtime story

29th January 2010 at 00:00

Let me check I've got this right. Her Majesty's Opposition says that when in power they would boost the status of teachers, squeeze waste out of the system and free schools from government interference. But testing these three policy positions against the statements in the Conservative Party's draft education manifesto, unveiled last week, I wondered if David Cameron had been handed the wrong speech.

Teacher status should have been an easy one for him, but his vision of a "new, noble profession" battling a "broken society" was more Harry Potter than Harry at Agincourt. Has he been reading too many fairytales to his children? Doesn't he know that the present generation of teachers is the best trained and most skilled we've ever had?

When observing lessons, I'm frequently inspired by the preparation, shared assessment with students, innovative use of technology and engagement in learning. The buzz lifts me for days. It's happening like this in schools around the country and it wasn't like this when I started teaching. I'd struggle now as a newly qualified teacher.

Like a playground bully, Cameron took a cheap shot at those with third-class degrees, promising to be "brazenly elitist" and stop our taxes from funding their training. While degree classification might influence the selection of candidates at appointment, I'm more likely to be swayed by A-level grades and the university they attended. But I know, to my shame, that this kind of elitism is deeply flawed: one of the finest teachers I ever appointed, who went on to transform the standards in the subject as head of department, had weak A-levels and a degree from the equivalent of Grimsby Polytechnic.

In any case, in 200607, 92.6 per cent of first-year trainee teachers had a 2:2 or above, so why the fuss? The best graduates have been coming into teaching for years, succeeding in the classroom and gaining leadership positions. Enhanced training in schools in partnership with universities, and entitlement to study for higher degrees, with opportunities for development and research, are the best guarantees of quality.

By highlighting future applicants, Cameron also ignored all current teachers and the thousands of valuable support staff. He couldn't bring himself to acknowledge their achievements. His view that "half of pupils do not get five good GCSEs including English and maths", while technically accurate - the figure is 49.7 per cent - was a miserly critique from Mr Sunshine. Moreover, the figure was 35.6 per cent when his party left office - a dramatic 14 per cent lower. We've had over a decade of remarkable progress, so why not tell the true story?

The second big policy, cutting waste, was a detail-free zone. The bold warrior chose not to say where his axe would fall. Instead of reducing waste, the Tory policy of creating a massive number of surplus places to meet parental choice would increase it. I challenge him to spice up his dull story by naming the cuts.

To be helpful, here's a proposal for him to reduce waste. Time is always a limiting factor, so why not double the number of training days each year? The savings to the supply budgets would be enormous as schools wouldn't pay twice, once for teachers and again for their cover. The cost to the Exchequer would be zero. Shadow Chancellor George Osborne could put that in his waste pipe and smoke it.

Freeing schools from Whitehall interference, the third policy, was reflected in his plan to give headteachers the "power to use their budgets to pay bonuses to the best teachers". Sound familiar? That's because we already have those powers: they're called recruitment and retention points. If teachers don't see them used very often, it's because of budgetary constraints. It's not the power heads lack; it's the funding. As for "Obama-style" financial incentives to attract more science graduates into teaching, we got there before the Americans with our "golden hellos" and bursaries for shortage subjects. It's already happening, Sunshine.

There was nothing new in the proposal to make it easier for heads to "fire poorly performing teachers". Welcome to the new Tory fantasy land. Even Ryan Bingham, George Clooney's character in the film Up in the Air, whose job is to tell employees that their company is "letting them go", doesn't ever use the "f" word. No head would want to do a Bingham or behave like Alan Sugar on The Apprentice. We can move quickly to help an under-performing colleague improve their teaching or, with the support of their union, reach a compromise agreement. Even Sir Alan fires only when he's been properly briefed and can prove that an apprentice has failed.

Maddest of all was Cameron's freedom-loving commitment to introduce Swedish-style self-assembly schools by allowing "anyone with a passion for giving children the best to set up a new school". Now, I can predict that's a tale that won't have a happy ending.

You know, I really do think it's David's bedtime now, everybody. So let's thank him for a lovely story and hope he has a credible script next time he gives a speech.

Ray Tarleton, Principal of South Dartmoor Community College, Ashburton, Devon.

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