Our education system has many problems that urgently need addressing. The Labour Party has rightly made education a key issue in their General Election campaign. Education workers and trade unionists have long been highlighting the crises in curriculum, funding and teacher retention; crises that the Tories have no answers to.
As we cast our votes on the 8th June, we must not forget the havoc caused by the Conservative Party in England’s schools. Here’s why:
1. Curriculum changes and student welfare.
During his time at the Department for Education (DfE), Michael Gove overhauled the National Curriculum and revised all key qualifications (SATs, GCSEs and A Levels). He intended to add “intellectual rigour” into schools and became obsessed with getting the UK to the top of international league tables.
This so-called rigour has horrendous consequences in the classroom. Due to the new grading system, neither pupils nor staff have any idea of what marks to predict. The exams have become so difficult that in scores collected nationally by one exam board, the average on a mock maths paper was near 11%. The chief examiner for another board advises students spend 15 minutes reading English extracts in their exam – extracts which she then spent nearly 20 minutes reading herself. I am a trilingual teacher and yet failed the Year 6 spelling and grammar SATs paper. Sceptical teachers and governors were dubbed “sherry pouring, cake slicing” “enemies of promise”.
This has led to an alarming rise in mental health issues among students as young as six. The DfE’s reaction? Sack their Schools’ Mental Health tsar when she linked this rise to education policy. As school performance measures toughen next year and exams get even harder, this situation will only deteriorate.
Theresa May and Justine Greening claim that education has never had so much funding. While this is true, we’ve also never had as many students. Research by the National Union of Teachers and the Alliance of Teachers and Lecturers has found that 99% of schools will have their funding cut per pupil. Where I teach in Birmingham, this equates to £107m by 2019, the equivalent of 2898 teachers. The government has already cut money to local authorities used for pupils with special educational needs, and for important child protection measures such as DBS checks. There are hints from the DfE that this will get worse as additional funding for disadvantaged students will likely be incorporated into the new funding formula.
This is happening against a backdrop of astronomical spending on Free schools and Grammar schools. The DfE is paying head teachers’ salaries before schools even open, in a bid to secure their creation. They’ve spent £863m on land for Free schools and expect to spend a further £2.5bn by 2022, putting them in the same spending bracket as the UK’s top five home builders. A cross-party report recently condemned this “incoherent” spending, highlighting that most existing schools are over 40 years old, riddled with asbestos and requiring £7bn in restoration costs. And let’s not forget that Gove scrapped all plans to rebuild England’s schools, a move which he took almost overnight and later said was a mistake.
Teaching Assistants are being made redundant and class sizes are rocketing. A friend of mine teaches a class of 72. Heads are talking of giving their most experienced teachers “super sets” of 100 plus. These are the direct results of Tory deregulation and savage budget cuts.
3. Teacher recruitment and retention.
Whilst working with young people is an immense privilege, the current pressures of the job are untenable for many. Since 2010, we have seen a huge increase in teachers leaving the profession. Some 73% of school leaders have recruitment and retention issues and in 2015, 1 in 10 teachers left the classroom altogether. That’s a total of 50,000 qualified teachers. Some 100,000 people train and then never teach. The teacher drop-out rate after five years is 30%. Labour Party analysis estimates that English schools spent £56m on advertising for vacant posts, a 61% increase from 2010. Of those still teaching, half are considering leaving.
Some schools are becoming rolling doors of trainees and unqualified staff who teach for one year and then leave. In the context of bigger classes, new exam specifications and hardened school accountability and performance measures, this spells disaster for our children.
4. “Educational excellence, everywhere”.
The Tories’ education policy plays to its voter base, using the life chances and futures of deprived children for its own political gain. The expansion of grammar schools, flying in the face of all research, is a key part of this. These schools do not admit enough pupils from low income families, and admit even fewer of those with special educational needs. Indeed, the Tories’ own white paper, which promised excellent schools for every child, made no reference whatsoever to pupils with special educational needs. This, combined with Local Authority cuts totaling £600m on top of those outlined above, means that these pupils have very little hope of accessing the services they need.
Put simply, the Tories do not care for those students. Their right-wing so-called meritocracy dismisses our most vulnerable and disadvantaged students, providing funds and teachers only for those ‘willing to work’ for entrance exams. It’s the exact same ideology that scapegoats welfare recipients, except this time, the target is children. They have no agency and no control over the mess that this government has created. They deserve better.