Like most parents, Liz Truss appears to be making it up as she goes along

Isn’t it only a few weeks since the PM’s advisor on childhood Claire Perry was claiming that children’s lives were over-regimented and that the little blighters needed to be bored?

 

This morning I woke up to two things: the claim that Tory minister Elizabeth Truss thinks today’s toddlers are “running around with no sense of purpose”, and my own three-year old, hellbent on making me read Baker’s Cat for the millionth time running and refusing to take a mumbled “can’t you look at the nice pictures?” for an answer.

Much as I would have liked to ponder the former, the latter meant I didn’t have time. I had a book to read, several times over, with actions and exaggerated sing-song voices, otherwise - “Mummy, you’ve not done it properly!” Toddlers don’t need teaching anything about purpose. On the contrary, they could show the rest of us a thing or two about identifying a goal and sticking to it, crushing the will of all who stand in their way.

To be fair, it now turns out that Truss didn’t actually say that it’s toddlers who are “running around with no sense of purpose”.  The Mail just made it sound like she did. In her interview with the newspaper Truss was actually describing her encounters with free-flow play in nurseries:

I have seen too many chaotic settings, where children are running around. There’s no sense of purpose.

So it’s not the children but the overall setting. Even so, I’m confused. Isn’t it only a few weeks since the PM’s advisor on childhood Claire Perry was claiming that children’s lives were over-regimented and that the little blighters needed to be bored? But now it turns out that a lack of structure is the problem. And besides, if it’s nurseries in particular we’re talking about, should children be in them at all? It’s not long since Swedish childcare expert Jonas Himmelstrand was briefing MPs on the evils of “separating children from their mothers”, much to the approval of yet another Tory, David Davies. Only it turns out Himmelstrand’s not that much of an expert after all.

Ho hum. I guess if there’s one thing we can learn from this, it’s that Tories don’t agree on childcare. Or perhaps they do but they’re just making it up as they go along, with frequent about-turns, in much the same way as most parents make things up, although minus the usual guilt and self-doubt.

In a nice, Gove-esque touch, Truss refers to one specific detail within the vast cultural context of another country in order to back up her current argument. In this case the country is France. This is because, as we all know, French children don’t throw food. They don’t talk back, either. I mean, they might grow up to be more prone than most to take to the streets in mass industrial protests (look, I know these are crass national stereotypes, but hey, I didn’t start it). According to Truss, French nurseries are where it’s at:

What you notice in French nurseries is just how calm they are. All of their classes are structured and led by teachers. It’s a requirement. They learn to socialise with each other, pay attention to the teacher and develop good manners, which is not the case in too many nurseries in Britain.’

Oh, and another thing I’ve just remembered: the French mums of all these well-behaved children don’t get fat, which is an added bonus. So yeah, French nurseries! Vive la difference! Or rather not la difference, the opposite (is there a French translation for “out of context  detail that we should all copy”?).

I don’t doubt that French childrearing methods – looked at in their entirety – differ somewhat from English ones. I’m less sure how much it matters. In  the interests of fairness, I’ve even conducted my own experiment. When some French friends of mine decided to have a baby, I decided to have one, too (I was quite keen on the idea anyhow, but the main reason was so that I could write this one paragraph right now).

Three years on, both of our children are at nursery, or rather French Child is à l‘école, where he learns to sit still and recite, while English Child is at Monkey Puzzle, where he runs around with Early Learning Centre pans on his head. And when they meet up the two of them appear remarkably similar and get along just fine (apart from that one time English Child sent French Child to A&E with an “overenthusiastic” hug, but we don’t like to talk about that now). What’s more, I don’t think you gain much by tinkering with early years education to ensure youngsters are “disciplined” if there aren’t opportunities to offer them later. Might as well let them be creative. That way they can at least pretend to have jobs once they’re older and/or paint more imaginative placards once they take to the streets.

That said, I suppose in the meantime there is a degree to which we’re not harnessing the sheer bloody-mindedness of toddlers while we can. If we put our minds to it, we could probably out-do the French on that score. I think back to when my eldest was two and totally obsessed with taking everything out of the kitchen cupboards and loading it into the washing machine. If you asked him why he’d just look at you and say, like some wild-eyed prophet, “--’chine! ‘chine! ‘CHINE!” The almost mythical determination to complete such a futile, repetitive task carries within it a message for us all.

I’m just not sure I, nor any “expert” MP, is capable of knowing what to do with it yet.

A group of toddlers with a strong sense of purpose. Photo: Getty

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

A protest in 2016. Getty
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Fewer teachers, more pupils and no more money. Schools are struggling

With grammars and universal school meals, both main parties have decided to answer policy questions no one is asking.

If you ask people in Britain what the ­biggest political issues are, schools don’t make the top five. Yet last week Labour set its first party political broadcast in a fictional classroom where a teacher described Jeremy Corbyn’s plans for schools’ future. Without a Labour government, the teacher opines, there will be no more libraries, or teachers, or school trips. Though the scenario is a flagrant breach of the law – teachers must remain politically impartial – education isn’t a bad place for Labour to start its campaign. Schools really are quite screwed.

Three things are hitting hard. Schools have less money, fewer people want to be teachers, and an avalanche of under-sevens is hitting the playgrounds and won’t stop for several more years.

How did we get here? In 2015 the Conservatives pledged to keep school funding at the same rate per pupil over the lifetime of the parliament. Yet while the money coming in has remained flat, schools have faced huge hikes in costs, particularly staffing. Big increases in mandatory pension contributions and National Insurance have taken their toll; so has the apprenticeship levy. The
Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that all told, schools will have lost about 8 per cent of their budget by 2020. That’s £3bn of savings that must be found. Or, more bluntly, the starting salaries of 100,000 teachers.

It is worth remembering at this point how huge the schools sector is and how many people are affected. About half a million teachers work in the 20,000-plus state schools. A further 300,000 people work in allied professions. There are eight million children and an estimated 12 million parents. Lump in their grandparents, and it’s fair to say that about 20 million voters are affected by schools in one way or another.

The budget squeeze is leading many of these schools to drastic measures: firing teachers, increasing class sizes, cutting music from the curriculum, charging parents for their child’s place on a sports team, dropping transport provision, and so on. Begging letters to parents for donations have become commonplace; some have asked for contributions of up to £60 a month.

On top of money worries, teachers are abandoning the profession. In 2015, an additional 18,000 went to work in international schools – more than were trained at universities over the same year. They joined the 80,000 teachers already working in British schools abroad, attracted by higher pay and better working conditions.

Graduates are also snubbing teaching. With starting salaries increasing at less than 1 per cent a year since 2010, new teachers are now paid about 20 per cent less than the average graduate trainee. Changes to higher education are also such that trainees must now pay £9,000 in order to gain their teaching qualification through a university. The government has missed its target for teacher trainees for five years now, and there is no coherent plan for hitting it.

No money and no teachers is less of a problem if you are in a demographic dip. We had a bizarrely low birth rate at the turn of the century, so we currently have a historically small proportion of teens. Unfortunately, the generation just behind them, of seven-year-olds and under, is enormous. Why? Because the “baby echoers”, born in the 1970s to the baby boomers, had children a bit later than their parents. Add to that the children recently born to immigrants who arrived in their twenties when the European Union expanded in the early 2000s, and Britain is facing an El Niño of toddlers. By 2025 a million extra children will be in the school system than in 2010.

To keep on top of the boom the government has been creating schools like a Tasmanian devil playing Minecraft. But 175,000 more places will be needed in the next three years. That’s the equivalent of one new secondary school per week from now until 2020.

In fairness, the government and councils have put aside money for additional buildings, and roughly the same number of parents are getting their first-choice school as before. The free schools policy, which delivers new schools, has not always been well managed, but it is now more efficient and targeted. However, many more children combined with squeezed budgets and fewer teachers typically leads to bigger class sizes. Most classrooms were built to house 30 pupils. Exam results may not get worse, but no parent wants their child working on a makeshift desk improvised out of a windowsill.

Instead of addressing these challenges, both main parties have decided to answer policy questions no one is asking. Theresa May wants more grammar schools, ostensibly because they will give more choice to parents – though these are the only schools that pick pupils, as opposed to the other way around. And she says they will aid social mobility, though all the evidence (and I really do mean all) suggests the opposite.

Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, is offering free lunches to all seven-to-11-year-olds, which sounds worthy until you realise that children from low-income families already get free lunch, and that feeding every child a hot sit-down meal is virtually impossible, given the limited space and kitchen facilities in most schools. Plus, the evidence this £1bn policy would make any significant difference
to health or attainment is pretty sketchy. Labour has also sensibly talked about cash and promised to “fully fund” schools, but it isn’t clear what that means.

What’s missing so far from the Conservatives and Labour alike is a set of policies about teacher recruitment or place planning. The sector needs to know how schools will be built, and where the teachers will come from for the extra kids. In other words, the message to both sides is – must try harder.

Laura McInerney is the editor of Schools Week and a former teacher

Laura McInerney taught in East London for six years and is now studying on a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Missouri. She also works as Policy Partner at LKMCo.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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