In our contingency planning for the general election, we prepared for a range of scenarios. Except, it turns out, the one that is the normal election result in this country – a majority party. Who’d have thought it? Nonetheless, a strong Conservative input to education policy was always likely, so we are familiar with the basic building blocks. One question now, though, is whether they might go further. The Conservative manifesto itself was written under the expectation of a coalition too. Do they now regret ruling out for-profit schools or only committing to 500 free schools?
Some of the shape of the next five years was already determined whoever won: pupils, teachers, money. More of the first, less of the other two. This is the equation which will drive and constrain ministers. The Conservative manifesto is light on these topics. It risks fighting the last war – that of autonomy and accountability – rather than the future war, which will be capacity. It relies on the same tools as the previous administration: higher stakes, more testing, more autonomy. These have their place but no “policy lever” works effectively when pushed to extremes. I suspect the future secretary of state will find them worn out. They may need to develop a fresher vision than that of the manifesto.
On funding, the Conservatives promise to keep flat cash per pupil from 5-16. This may turn out to be more generous than the Labour proposals for schools but it is still a cut. The future of early years and post-16 is now difficult. More painfully, if the Conservatives are to honour their deficit reduction commitments they will need to find significant cuts in welfare and other public services. As the NAHT has demonstrated recently this puts immense pressure on school budgets as they attempt to pick up the pieces.
The manifesto does not major on teacher recruitment and retention, beyond high level promises on workload and reducing the burden of inspection. The commitment to the College of Teaching is good in itself, but it is not going to solve this issue. This situation could be stoked by further conflict with the unions if the government enacts anti-trade union legislation. All in all, this area is a significant Achilles’ heel that also needs a new vision. Is there an authentically Conservative “new deal” for teachers? It might involve greater flexibility and pay freedoms. If they could bring themselves to act on the assessment burden and inspection that would also open up possibilities.
Perhaps the most worrying entry in the manifesto is the pledge to change the leadership of schools judged by Ofsted as “requires improvement” (RI) unless they show a rapid plan of improvement. This effectively makes RI a category, which is far from what we were originally promised. It will have a devastating effect on leadership recruitment. I also doubt the capacity of the system to enact successful takeovers at the scale envisioned. I sense some potential for constructive discussion in the language. What does it mean to change leadership – is that automatically a sacking or could it involve an executive head supporting the existing team? What about the escape clause of the plan of improvement? Don’t all RI schools have to show capacity for improvement, isn’t that what stops them from being inadequate? I suspect I will be spending a lot of time on these questions soon.
Regardless of these conundrums, it is still beholden on the profession to take some control of its own destiny. We needn’t sit waiting for the worst, we can tackle many of our problems ourselves. We can take ownership of leadership development, we can help RI schools demonstrate improvement and we can help schools join together, in purposeful yet voluntary collaborations so they can help each other through these challenges. Take ownership of standards; take responsibility for each other. A mantra to hold on to.
Russell Hobby is general secretary of headteachers' union the NAHT.