Conservative leadership contest misses the big issues in education

By Geoff Barton
General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

As you’ll have noticed, as much of Europe burns, as the energy crisis deepens, and against a backdrop of war, there’s the parochial matter of a Conservative leadership election playing out. 

So, what should the world of education expect from Liz Truss as Prime Minister (as seems most likely) or her rival Rishi Sunak?

Both have been big on rhetoric but somewhat scattergun on policy proposals. Liz Truss has pitched herself as the “education prime minister” and vowed “to get Britain’s education system back on track.” It’s a slightly curious statement given that she has been part of a government which has been in charge of education for the past 12 years.

Meanwhile, Rishi Sunak has said that a good education “is the closest thing we have to a silver bullet when it comes to making people’s lives better” and has unveiled a plan to (inevitably) “radically reform education.”

Their actual policies are a bit of a pick-and-mix affair. There is a good summary in the education paper Schools Week which you can read here.

But let’s look at a few of the most interesting ideas. 

Rishi Sunak has pledged a new “British Baccalaureate” in post-16 education, the detail of which is vague, but would require all pupils to continue to study English and maths in sixth form. 

There’s merit in the idea of a broader-based set of post-16 qualifications – even though the direction of government policy has actually flown in the opposite direction over the past decade with a narrowing of the curriculum thanks to the decoupling of A levels and AS levels as well as severe funding pressures.

A blended programme of academic and technical qualifications tailored around the interests and aspirations of students would arguably be a richer and more useful learning experience. It would also provide the opportunity to end the pernicious snobbery that academic routes are somehow superior to technical pathways by putting them both on an equal footing.

Whether Mr Sunak wants to be that radical, however, is another matter. But even though there’s a lot of detail to be fleshed out, it’s an interesting thought nonetheless.

And there are promising statements too about harnessing artificial intelligence and digital teaching resources which reflect a desire to be forward-thinking and embrace technology.

Meanwhile, Liz Truss has said that she would expand high-performing academies and replace failing academies with new free schools (aka academies) and grammars. She’s also keen on lifting the ban on new selective schools introduced by Labour in 1998. Rishi Sunak has also been trying to appease the grammar school lobby in Conservative ranks but has confined this to promising the expansion of existing selective schools.

Ms Truss also pledges a “laser-like focus” on improving maths and literacy standards in line with the government’s recent white paper.

On the structural stuff, and leaving aside the lack of detail, it all feels a bit reductive with high-performing academies expanding, children travelling from further afield to get to them, while schools in challenging circumstances are periodically re-brokered between trusts whenever they get a negative Ofsted rating. It isn’t exactly inspiring as a vision for education.

And then there’s the wearisome flag-waving for more selective schools – a circle we have all been through only recently under Theresa May’s government with a policy that was subsequently abandoned.

I won’t go through all the arguments again. You’re familiar with them already. 

Suffice to say that when Ms Truss talks about giving parents the “choice” to send their children to grammar schools that isn’t how the system works. It is, of course, the system that chooses the child, not the other way round, and most children are not selected. I’m not sure how well that will go down on the doorsteps come General Election time in all those areas of the country that have had no experience of the selective system for 50 years.

Which brings me on to my final point. The problem with all this is that there’s no real focus from either candidate on the two issues which matter most – the funding of our education system, and teacher supply.

Raising educational standards further – particularly for children who are disadvantaged, vulnerable and have special educational needs – requires resources. But the brutal truth is that teachers, and support staff, are in critically short supply, and there is a funding crisis looming because of soaring energy costs and pay awards for which there is no additional government money.

Everything else – all the rhetoric and ambitions the candidates espouse – will turn to dust without urgent action on these two fronts. That’s where a “laser-like focus’ is really needed.

Geoff Barton is ASCL General Secretary. 
Posted: 15/08/2022 14:01:18