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19 May 2016

Leader: Stop meddling in our schools

Instead of meddling with structures, the government should address the growing teacher shortage.

By New Statesman

On 18 May, the Conservative government unveiled its forthcoming legislative programme in the Queen’s Speech. Judging by last year’s version, we should pay scant attention to what was proposed. In 2015, with the Tories basking in the glory of an unexpected majority, the Queen promised a government that would “legislate in the interests of everyone in our country”, adopting a “one-nation approach” and “supporting aspiration”. That rhetoric now rings hollow. Far from governing in this spirit, David Cameron has allowed his party to become engulfed by European splits, as Simon Heffer reports on page 28, while also pursuing flawed and short-sighted “reforms”.

An emblematic case is the government’s so-called education policy. Plans to compel all state schools to convert to academy status were not proposed in the Queen’s Speech. Instead, they were announced by a beleaguered Chancellor in need of a positive headline in his most recent Budget speech. Within two months, the government had retreated after a series of rebellions, including from the Tory grass roots.

That the policy unravelled so quickly was no surprise. Forced “academisation” privileged dogma over pragmatism. More puzzlingly, it located a problem where there was none. In education, standards are more important than structures. Different ways of organising schools are important only in so far as they improve the quality of education received by students, no matter their social background. The most reliable guarantee of good teaching is not whether a school is a comprehensive or an academy, but good teachers and governance.

Instead of meddling with structures, the government should address the growing teacher shortage. It is true that there is a record number of teachers in England, but nowhere near enough to keep pace with the rapid increase in demand (partly the result of a growing population and immigration).

Indeed, the government has missed teacher recruitment targets for four consecutive years. There are particular shortages in coastal and isolated areas. More than a quarter of secondary physics lessons are now taught by teachers with no more than an A-level in the subject; 61 per cent of schools in the poorest areas rely on temporary arrangements for teaching maths and science.

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Whoever they are taught by, English children are among the most tested in the world – starting from an inordinately early age, as the recent “kids’ strike” exposed (see Observations, page 16). It is no coincidence that English children are among the unhappiest in the world and that the number of under-16s hospitalised for self-harm in England has risen by 76 per cent in the past five years.

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The government’s education blunders are indicative of the carelessness that has pervaded Mr Cameron’s majority administration. Since last year’s Queen’s Speech, the government has U-turned on planned cuts to tax credits and disability benefits, the relaxation of fox-hunting laws, reductions in police numbers and changes to Sunday trading restrictions.

This is poor governance. One U-turn shows a pragmatic willingness to engage with critics and correct mistakes. That there have been so many in so short a time suggests a deep problem at the core of the government’s policymaking. 

Hit the sofas, Mr Corbyn

Batting back questions from ITV’s Robert Peston on 15 May, Jeremy Corbyn looked comfortable, authoritative and engaging. The Sunday morning show format is a difficult one to master – questions veer from the possibility of another recession to whether the interviewee is middle class or not – but Mr Corbyn has the advantage of knowing what he thinks and not being afraid to say it. (His predecessor, Ed Miliband, always seemed tortured by any triangulation.) His sense of humour – that wry cocked eyebrow – is well captured by TV cameras but less so in print.

This offers an obvious lesson: Mr Corbyn, who is keen to speak directly to voters through Twitter and Facebook, should also embrace the old-fashioned medium of television, much as the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon did when she felt that the press was unsympathetic to her message. The Labour leader might dislike “personality politics” but voters will be more receptive to his ideas if they get a sense of his values and background.

Come on, Mr Corbyn. There’s no shame in going on The One Show and talking about your allotment. 

This article appears in the 18 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster