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The View from the Hill

It is encouraging to see Labour, Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Parties all offering commitments on funding.  However, mathematicians may have to work out which pledges are more valuable.  Most schools have had real challenges in the area of finance in the past 5 years, particularly with cuts in capital money and sixth form funding.

Labour have a significant focus on post 16 education.  A Technical Baccalaureate of 16 – 18 year olds is proposed, and we can only hope in this that the many lessons of the past ventures in this domain have been well-learned.  Labour are also proposing study of English and maths to 18.  Personally, I feel our national sixth form curriculum is narrower than many other countries, and, with the uncoupling of AS level from A level, there is a real danger that it may become narrower still.  Labour have said that they will reverse the change to A level structure so that AS, usually sat in Year 12, is again contributing towards overall A level achievement, and not separate.  Many school leaders would support this. 

It is also proposed by Labour that teacher training places more emphasis on school discipline.  In reality, of course, this is the first and most important consideration already for any trainee and their mentor.  The Conservative Party have a different focus with their desire to train17,500 maths and physics teachers over the course of the parliament. 

This is welcome.  Even in Bath, which has 2 universities and is an attractive place to live and work, there are real challenges in recruitment.  This is now a familiar picture all over the UK, and something that the new government must take responsibility for.  Recently, there was an idea that schools could take this on themselves in its entirety which is not realistic.  The recruitment crisis is not tomorrow, it is today.  It must also be said, though, that it extends well beyond maths and physics.

The Conservative Party plans to make the English Baccalaureate compulsory.  There is a danger here of taking the options out of options; many students get a new lease of enthusiasm from being allowed to devote more time to their preferred subjects, so that geography, history and languages for all may work against this to some extent.  For some students drama, art, textiles or PE GCSE may be not only a great choice, but important for future careers and post 16 study.  It’s also hard to do an A level in a subject that you haven’t taken in KS4.

Other emphases of the Conservatives are familiar: traditional knowledge and skills, such as times tables.  There may be little to disagree with here, though the lived experience of teachers sometimes makes it hard for them to connect with policy makers’ rhetorical flourishes.

Unsurprisingly, structural considerations are part of Conservative planning.  The party wants to open 500 new free schools.  In fact, there are not many real differences between free schools and academies, except their provenance.  I do have a real concern about national expenditure on free schools, particularly the acquisition of buildings.  Some new free schools have not had a demographic to support them, which is wasteful.  No party is offering to reverse policy on academies, and that is welcome.

The Conservative Party wants to introduce resits for primary school students moving into Year 7 if they do not reach required standards.  This is not something schools have been asking for, will be costly, and may even counteract the sense of a new start.  Of course, good schools begin to gather their own data in any case from the moment the students arrive.

It is no surprise to see that the Pupil Premium is at the heart of Liberal Democrat commitments.  This is now a major funding stream for most schools, and cutting it would be damaging and difficult.  The party is also committed to extending Teaching School status, which is something I would support.  Lib Dem thinking seems to be to re-orientate the country towards local authorities with references to a ‘middle tier,’ a question mark about Regional Schools Commissioners, and repeal suggested of legislation that requires that all new schools should be academies or free schools.

UKIP want to see an extension of grammar schools, while the Conservative Party is proposing making it easier for them to expand.  I don’t think that such expansion is really likely to lead to system improvements.  Another resonance between the two parties is on the issue of workload.  Nicky Morgan has already made this an issue to deal with, and UKIP similarly proposes reduction of bureaucratic demands.  We can only hope that government initiatives, which in fact often bring about workload and bureaucracy, are stress-tested as to whether they would be defeating this important goal.  A more manageable workload might also help with the retention and recruitment of teachers.

The Green Party has some truly radical proposals, such as compulsory education starting at 7 (we feel the Australian influence here!), and would be an interesting voice at the coalition table.

Nicky Morgan was quoted in a national newspaper this week as saying, ‘What we need now is a period of calm and stability to help the changes of recent years to bed in and spread throughout the system…we need to stick with the plan that is working and have the courage to see it through.’ 

This offers some reassurance, and it is true that across the piece, other parties are not generally offering a pendulum swing of the kind previously seen.  Going further, I would recommend the solid good sense of the ASCL’s Blueprint for a Self-Improving System, which, after the experience of the past five years, seeks to place some sensible limits on the extent to which politicians can tinker with the educational engines.  For example, one set of changes to National Curriculum within a parliament, rather than constant ongoing ones.  I think that there are now real confusions in some areas, such as school holidays, which will place additional pressures on students and their families. 

Of course, this is 2015 and we wait to see how many of these commitments survive the late night caffeine-fuelled conversations between putative coalition partners!

Tim Withers, April 22 2015