Let them finish what they started?
Although this year’s election is set to be a tight one, months of opinion polls seem to suggest that the Conservatives have the edge on Labour, for the time being at least.
Our UK Independence Party (UKIP) blog outlined how Britain is moving away from two-party-politics, but it’s still the red and blue of Labour and the Conservatives that define the main political divide for most. These two parties remain the ones that the majority of voters will split themselves between.
What they started
Since coming to power in 2010, the Conservative-led government, in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, have:
- Set up over 250 free schools.
- Implemented a new curriculum.
- Converted thousands of ‘failing’ schools into academies.
- Brought in measures to tackle ‘grade inflation’, including making GCSEs more difficult.
- Re-focussed learning on the ‘three Rs’ (reading, writing and arithmetic).
- Made core GCSEs compulsory.
- Created 2,200 special school places.
- Given teachers greater disciplinary powers.
These policies have been controversial. In particular, a major select committee report, published in 2014, outlined that there is little evidence to suggest that academisation alone has had a positive impact on learning or achievement. At the centre of this report was the argument that most things an academy can do, a maintained school can do too. Academy status is no magic wand for struggling schools or pupils.
So, if we decide to keep to the status-quo and allow the Conservatives another four years to “finish what [they] started”, what will that mean for education?
According to their manifesto, the Conservatives “know what works in education: great teachers, brilliant leadership, rigour in the curriculum, discipline in the classroom, proper exams”.
It’s classic Conservative Party rhetoric. Old-school, some might say. Ultimately, a great deal of the Conservatives’ education policy is about devolution of power to individuals, be they headteachers, teachers or parents.
An educational future under the Conservative Party would be focussed on: giving educational leaders more power to improve schools, improving the social standing of teaching so that the profession attracts top graduates who can supposedly boost pupils’ performance, and giving parents a number of high performing schools to choose from.
The Conservatives’ big election pledge is that the “amount of money following your child into school will be protected”.
This is a double-edged sword. It means that the amount of money invested in education per child would actually be decreasing relative to inflation, but it also means that, regardless of baby-booms and immigration, pupils’ funding would be secure and stable, pupil premium funding included.
In addition, free school meals would be available for all infants.
Providing ‘good’ school places is another high priority in the Conservative Party manifesto, a priority which would be allocated £7 billion under a Conservative government.
Strategies for improving the quality and number of school places include the expansion of the National Leaders of Education programme, which the Conservative Party hope would enable ‘top’ headteachers to take control of failing primaries and thereby drive up standards.
Like academisation, this characteristic Conservative reliance on the power of the individual is something Labour has criticised. Assuming that a great headteacher can compensate for all of the social and economic realities which impact a pupil’s learning and success is ambitious, some might say foolish.
In addition, regardless of its detractors, the academy conversion process will continue apace under the Conservatives, with over 500 new free schools, equating to 270,000 new places, to be established, something Labour want to end.
As well as these changes, while schools judged ‘good’, regardless of type, will be encouraged to continue their expansion, coasting schools could expect further governmental involvement in their leadership and status.
In line with the ‘conversion solves all’ philosophy of the Conservative Party, failing schools would be transformed into academies. In addition, yet to be detailed new powers are described as forcing “coasting schools” to accept leadership changes.
As well as these changes to the allocation of power in school leadership, teachers could expect greater power to discipline pupils in their care, with more focussed training relating to serious behavioural issues and low-level disruption in classrooms.
Teachers are, in fact, promised a great deal in the Conservative manifesto, including:
- A reduction in paperwork
- Bursaries for in-demand subjects
- Higher pay for high performing teachers
- Reduced responsibilities related to Ofsted inspections
- The growth of Teach First
Though such changes would be welcomed by many teachers, such promises are likely to be met with a degree of scepticism. With teaching workloads increasingly featuring in the news, and performance related pay making teachers more responsible for pupils’ achievement, it could well be a case of too little too late for many teachers’ Conservative Party votes.
It’s perhaps the more subtle changes proposed by the Conservatives that could resonate in the future.
With an eye firmly set on becoming a world-leader in terms of the quality of school and University graduates, subject priorities in the classroom would continue to be tweaked.
The Conservatives’ stated aim is “to make Britain the best place in the world to study maths, science and engineering”. This goal would require many more maths and physics teachers to be trained and employed (another Conservative Party pledge), and is intended to boost innovation, skills and, ultimately, Britain’s economy in the future.
A nod to the supposed world-leader in terms of economic growth, the teaching of Mandarin in schools would also be given a boost under a Conservative led government, “so we can compete in the global race”.
You may find the question, “the race to what?” raised in our Green Party blog, coming up next week.