Annually, around Easter, Britain’s teachers gather in three separate seaside towns and slag off the government. (They need three towns, because there are three big teachers’ unions.)
This year will be no different. Which is rather disappointing, because the Education Secretary – unlike her predecessor, David Blunkett – is someone whom teachers instinctively trust. Estelle Morris, as a former teacher, is one of them. She came top of the hate list of Chris Woodhead, the former chief inspector of schools. And she doesn’t sound a bit new Labour, even though she has to use its language. All the dreary feel-good words – “challenge”, “vision”, “excellence” – sound out of place in her mouth, as though, if only you could get her away from the script, she would become human.
Indeed, leaders of two of the three teachers’ unions were prepared to condemn the third union for going on strike. Morris had quietly pointed out that she would have a tough time protecting education in the forthcoming comprehensive spending review. A threat of teachers’ strikes would be just the sort of weapon that jealous cabinet colleagues might deploy to steal a few million from her budget. Union leaders responded to this rather well, until Gordon Brown let it be known that his priority for spending was health.
That was what everyone feared. As Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, had predicted, “education, education, education” was turning into “health, health, health”, and could well after that turn into “transport, transport, transport”. Education had had its day in the sun. So what’s the point of restraint? All three teachers’ unions are likely to vote for strikes or other forms of protest this Easter.
Is this not rather ungrateful? After all, Blunkett did get some substantial sums of money into education. The trouble is that the government has spent its money in the way least likely to leave teachers and heads feeling grateful. Rather than ploughing money into schools and into teachers’ pay, it has chosen to toss the money in the air and watch schools and teachers fight over it. They duly fought. But they resent the government that made them do so.
The government seems unable to give money to schools without inventing a special sort of school to receive it, and therefore another sort of school that fails to receive it. So a school can now apply to become a specialist school in one of eight subject areas – technology, languages, sports, arts, business and enterprise, engineering, science, or mathematics and computing.
You can apply for specialist status only if you can persuade some private company to give your school £50,000. Then the government will give you a lump sum of £100,000 and £123 a year per pupil for at least the next four years.
The result is what you would expect. Lots of schools are wasting precious resources on compiling their development plans, schmoozing local business moguls, and so on, in order to snap up whatever specialism is likely to be going in their area, whether or not it is the one they would have chosen. They do it even though many of them believe a specialism will harm their ability to raise standards in all subjects. They do it because, if they don’t, someone else’s school will, and thus snap up the extra money.
In time, Morris will tell us that the rush of applications for specialist status shows how popular the thing is among schools. The truth is that most schools are applying in the spirit of one head I spoke to recently: “I suppose I’m going to have to apply for specialist school status. They won’t let me have the money if I don’t.”
The most time-wasting part of the whole exercise is raising the £50,000 from business, which unlocks everything else. This is not so much a way of getting business to subsidise education (£50,000 is a drop in the ocean) as a way of getting business to draw up a shortlist of the schools to which public money should be given. The government no longer trusts the public sector to do this.
Extra special help goes to those schools that qualify for city academy status. City academies will be, in effect, state-subsidised private schools for which a sponsor is expected to find a fifth of the capital, or up to £2m. Once the sponsor is found, this will unlock state handouts on an even larger scale than those going to specialist schools. Meanwhile, in return for its £2m, the private sector sponsor will be able to take all the decisions that matter about the running of the school. And the school will have the freedom, within limits, to control its intake and get rid of pupils who are hard to teach. Neighbouring schools will be even more poverty-stricken than before. Their best bet, if they want a share in Blunkett’s bonanza, is to get into a local education action zone, or the newer Excellence in Cities scheme, both of which also involve extra money.
“Excellence” is one of the words Morris uses most often, and that tells you a lot about the mindset with which education policy is being made. If something is excellent, it excels – that is, it is better than something else. It is not, therefore, a word you can apply to every school in the land, only to those that are better than others. The Excellence in Cities scheme takes in clusters of schools and purports to make them better than other local schools – unless those other local schools are specialist schools or city academies, in which case they will be able to look down on the Excellence in Cities schools.
So all that Blunkett’s cash bought was a better life for some schools, which will be enabled to look down on the average (or, as we now know it, the bog-standard) comprehensive. But at least it allowed something to be done about teachers’ pay. Didn’t it?
Well, for a few teachers, yes, but not your bog-standard teacher. New Labour decreed that teachers were not to advance on the pay scale beyond a certain point – the so-called threshold – without an element of performance pay. At that point, a teacher had to go through a long competitive procedure that involved (naturally) a lot of form-filling by both teacher and head, and also involved (naturally) their work being checked, at great expense, by a private education consultancy, Cambridge Education Associates.
This, naturally, left some teachers at the point in their career where they could reasonably expect to start getting decently paid, but not able to get beyond the threshold. But worse, far worse, was to follow. To get the next four “performance points”, as they are called, there is another evaluation by the head teacher. This one, however, is not checked by Cambridge Education Associates. And the pay increase is not guaranteed. The government refuses to fund it, and if schools are to pay the rise its teachers have earned, they must forgo something else. Most teachers do not get it.
Morris calls this “giving schools flexibility to decide how much to invest in performance points”. It has outraged head teachers. A joint letter to the Education Secretary from the chiefs of both Britain’s head teachers’ associations makes it clear that heads will be placed in the impossible position of approving performance points for their staff, but being unable to pay the increment to which this entitles them.
It adds: “We have received nothing but negative responses to our many constructive suggestions. We have found this deeply frustrating . . . Heads will be dismayed to receive your letter, but their dismay will turn to anger when they read that your press release is questioning their commitment.”
Labour has indeed put money into education. But it has allocated the money with such monumental stupidity that no one, neither the men and women at the chalkface nor their managers, is inclined to give the government the smallest credit for finding it in the first place.