When will Britain's political parties talk seriously about education?

There has barely been a debate this election on how we can improve schools in this country. Why?

Sam Brunner
7 June 2017

A school building. Flickr/Alan Levine. Some rights reservedEducation, education, education. As a teacher, I'm listening hard for manifesto pledges that will make a difference when votes are cast tomorrow, but, as each rolls in, there is still not enough real debate of how we want to improve schools in this country. Where will we be in 2021?

I don't want to sound too miserable, but if tomorrow brings a Tory government with a workable majority, as seems most likely, the answer seems to be ‘more of the same’. Perhaps this explains why 75% of teachers in a recent TES survey said that they didn't think education would improve post-election.

If May is re-elected, I'm expecting the same grammar school debate that completely misses the point. May’s government may put a bit more money in, but it won't be enough. Technology and mental health interventions are on the agenda, which is positive, but outcomes are unpredictable. In the meantime, the new Conservative Secretary of State for Education is likely to be ‘Gove Lite’ and can be expected to keep on mucking about with free schools and academies, things which distract from the problems being faced in classrooms across the country and don't really make any tangible and whole-scale difference anyway.

What if Labour or a Labour-led coalition make it tomorrow? Despite the narrowing polls, the possibility seems remote, but there are some big promises for schools on Corbyn’s agenda, and polls suggest he has 65% of the teacher vote, up from 51% in 2015. He has pledged to reverse the £3 billion of savings that must be made by 2019-20, to halt the government proposed national funding formulas which hit the most needy schools in the poorest areas, lift public sector pay freezes and reduce class sizes. All excellent news, though questions remain over funding, but a Labour-SNP deal might be a force for positive change in the classroom.

We are asking teachers, who have had wages freezed for most of the past decade, to work a seven-day week

It's frustrating, though, to note an absence of any real discussion on any side about the practicalities of education, and educating. Where is the pledge that will address the crisis in teacher supply and retention in this country? The UK is a complete anomaly in terms of teacher retention in the developed world, but no one is really talking about it.

If no education system can be better than its teachers, but fewer than half of the teachers in our schools have more than 10 years experience, how and when will things improve?

Talis research found that teachers spend two days a week planning and marking. On top of a five day teaching week, we are asking teachers, who have had a wage freeze for most of the past decade, to work a seven-day week.

The real issue is how to attract people to the profession and how to keep them there, how to reduce workload and how to make it manageable. This must involve reconsideration of the accountability system – involving the way measure school success – and an overhaul of the inspection system.

Finally, it involves dealing with quality of lives: both teacher and pupil mental health are in crisis, not least due to the repercussions of the Gove-Morgan regime, an examination-based ideology gone mad.

We won't stop hearing about education anytime soon, no matter what happens tomorrow. But it's time to shift the focus to a system which prioritises the experience of education – both for teachers and pupils. None of us want to see classrooms crammed with even more pupils and empty of teachers in 2021. Let's start talking about that.

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