Tories’ schools policies raise more questions than answers

Many will be left wondering how the Tories can make theiur education plans a reality when their pledges raise more questions than they answer.

We were promised the “most radical agenda of school reform for the last generation” from the Tories today, with a commitment to make “children the authors of own life story”. It sounds so appealing, doesn’t it? Better than many of the bureaucratic top down initiatives we’ve grown used to in education. And yet, how many of us will be left wondering if the Tories can make this a reality when their pledges raise more questions than they answer.

While many teachers and parents will welcome a “new generation of smaller schools and smaller class sizes”, many will be baffled by Conservatives plans to deliver this. They place the Swedish school system at the heart of their manifesto, despite the fact experts around the world, including Sweden’s schools’ inspectorate, say they do not improve standards.

For free schools to work, vast numbers of parents need to have the desire and expertise to run their own schools. If not parents, charitable foundations, social enterprises or community groups who want to improve state education can get involved, but these imagined “‘little platoons’ of civil society” are often people with an agenda, whether political, religious or profiteering.

Responding to the manifesto, Linda Heaven-Woolley, a recently retired head of one of the most rapidly improved comprehensive schools in the country, told Left Foot Forward:

“Inner city areas will not have huge swathes of people coming forward to run one, even if philanthropists appear from somewhere in a recession. I can see cliques of middle class parents getting into this – social exclusion yet again for the working class.

“No one type of school has proven the worth of any model – there are good and poor academies as much as anything else.

“The quality issues lie in the institution, providing it is well funded, as schools have been mainly under Labour, with good national leadership that should be responsive to consultation.”

Free schools also rely on the idea that unfettered competition drives up school standards and requires surplus places. This will cause havoc for head teachers and governors who will need to plan year-on-year efficiencies, and is not cost-effective.

The Tories place an emphasis on discipline in their manifesto, but the only hints they have given on how they plan to improve students’ behaviour are: encouraging former soldiers to join the teaching profession; removing the right for parents of excluded children to appeal – which could send parents to the courts and be more costly for schools; and setting up small schools with more manageable class sizes, the plans for which are deeply flawed.

On the subject of teachers, the Tories do not once mention trusting teachers, as they do with healthcare professionals, and instead focus on banning anyone with less than a 2:2 from receiving state-support with teacher training, despite the fact they have appointed Carol Vorderman (third class honours) to be their maths adviser.

It is interesting to look at what the Tories have left out of the manifesto. There is no mention of a pledge in the January draft document to “redirect the school capital budget to fund at least 220,000 new school places in the poorest communities”. They also appear to have dodged their plans to introduce Saturday lessons for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Parents have been complaining that Saturday classes could become a “badge of dishonour”, while teachers raised concerns about their workload.

Meanwhile, there is still no information on how they will pay for the pupil premium, only a vague commitment to “raise productivity growth in the public sector”.

Tory schools policy is not so much an invitation to innovate schools, more an abdication of responsibility to address some of the true inequalities of our education system. Plans for DIY schools and the party’s invitation to ask people for help actually reveal that the Tories haven’t got a clue how to run our education system.

At their launch today, they played a video of a first time voter young mother, Julie from Wales, a parent who lived in a deprived area with poor access to schools, but one who admitted her children attended “a great school”. It lead the Standard’s deputy political editor Paul Waugh to tweet:

“Is this a video for Labour??”

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