In the old joke, a billionaire’s son requested a train set for his birthday. His father bought him Network Rail. Next year, the boy asked for a set of golf clubs – and received St Andrews, Royal Lytham and St George’s. Another year on, the lad wanted a cowboy outfit: so his father bought him the UK Parliament.
OK, I fell out of my cradle chortling at that one. But how else to describe the current state of our government? Except that the comparison demeans the beef-rearing community.
I’m not about to embark on a wholescale analysis of our democracy’s shortcomings, merely to observe how our government’s numerous deficiencies are exemplified in its handling of education.
The school funding crisis
This week, prime minister Theresa May stepped down. Anxious to leave some – any – kind of positive legacy, she wanted to pump £27 billion into the nation’s cash-starved schools: a figure that would have more than reversed the catastrophic funding cuts imposed since 2010.
The figure was rapidly revised downwards. Nonetheless, experts have calculated that even £7 billion per annum might restore schools' funding to pre-austerity levels. How about that, then?
No. Now-ex-Chancellor Philip Hammond hadn’t budgeted (note that: we’ll return to it) for catch-up payments for education, so the proposal was blocked. No golden goodbye to schools from TM, ex-PM: PH, ex-CoE, wouldn’t countenance it.
Meanwhile, candidates jostling to replace Ms May offered all kinds of largesse to education. Michael Gove promised a £1 billion increase to schools' budgets, while Boris Johnson, eventual winner of the Tory party’s private It’s a Knock-out, promised an extra £4.6 billion for schools by 2022-23.
Whether he’ll honour that pledge remains to be seen. In his first speech, the new PM confirmed that, “We have already announced that we will level up per-pupil funding.” Levelling up sounds closer to his earlier derisory pledge of £5,000 per pupil in every school, a feeble £200 increase on the national average.
Still, empty promises and half-truths are par for the course. Only a week ago, our new PM brandished a mail-order Manx kipper at his party’s faithful, lambasting the EU for its silly rules that make the packaging and delivery of such food prohibitively expensive. That regulation, it emerged, is entirely a UK device, without any connection to Brussels.
The revelation didn’t touch Johnson. Like his mate Donald Trump, he’s Teflon. He creates his moment, enjoys the adulation of his baying supporters: falsehoods, once exposed, are briskly dismissed as fake news or pettifogging detail.
Former (as of Wednesday) education secretary Damian Hinds used to boast of fighting behind the scenes to get teachers a decent pay deal. He and the DfE were delighted, just as term finished, to award teachers a 2.75 per cent pay rise: the figure recommended by the School Teachers’ Review Body (STRB). Time for general rejoicing, then?
Hardly. The profession (those members of it who, on their knees with exhaustion on the last day of the school year, had the strength to care) regarded it as an insult. It’s the usual government con-trick: the Department will bankroll just the 0.75 per cent, declaring the first 2 per cent “affordable for schools”.
Undervalued and demoralised
All this just when the school year has ended. Budgets are set, harsh choices already made as to where the axe must fall, given insufficient money to go round. Unlike Philip Hammond, and out of time as well as cash, school leaders and governors must recalculate to find that extra 2 per cent in order that, in the mechanically patronising words of Robert, the Department’s spokesrobot, “teachers and heads can receive a pay rise above current rates of inflation and have more money in their pockets”.
Another reason for teachers to feel undervalued and demoralised, then. I don’t foresee Gavin Williamson, Hinds’ successor and the fifth secretary of state for education in five years, doing much to change that situation.
Our new government, elected by its party on glib promises, flip comments and dodgy statistics, is unlikely to worry much about how many contradictory demands it makes of those who labour in public services, nor how often or how deeply it pisses them off.
Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher. He tweets @bernardtrafford