Rishi Sunak really cares about education. You can tell from the way his floundering campaign, which has been desperately flinging policies at Conservative Party members in the hope that some of them might stick (“Ban all building on the green belt!” “Put a quota on refugees!” “Funnel money from deprived urban areas to Tunbridge Wells!”), has decided to focus on it this week.
In between lamenting his wife’s exorbitant shoe collection and rapping along to Vanilla Ice in his interview with the Sunday Times, the beleaguered former chancellor set out his plan to reform the education sector. He plans to scrap the “overly narrow specialisation” of the post-16 curriculum in favour of something broader that will prepare young people for the “economy of tomorrow”. In other words, he wants to copy what France does and introduce a baccalaureate system (branding it a “British baccalaureate”, of course) that will require pupils to study maths and English all the way to 18. Education policy solved.
Obviously there is nothing wrong with wanting teenagers to leave school with better mathematical skills, but it’s hard to avoid the niggling feeling that there are a few things that need fixing before overhauling the entire curriculum.
For a start, more pupils studying maths for longer requires – you’ve guessed it – more maths teachers, a resource that is already in dangerously short supply. The country is currently facing a teaching recruitment crisis. In June, the National Foundation for Education Research published a report on what it euphemistically calls England’s “significant teacher supply challenge”, with a particular undersupply in Stem subjects such as maths and physics. Recruitment targets are being missed and according to Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, the teacher shortage in subjects like maths is “absolutely desperate”.
One reason why maths and physics have been affected more severely than other subjects is that there are quite a few careers open to a starry-eyed maths or science graduate that are a bit more lucrative than teaching. It’s hard to imagine this is being helped much by the government’s announcement last month of a below-inflation pay review for most teachers that amounts to a real-terms pay cut. And besides, schools are being made to find the cash for higher salaries themselves, without additional funding, squeezing budgets further.
Rishi Sunak might no longer be chancellor, but this mantra that “there’s no money” is very much a continuation of his economic ethos. He didn’t mention school funding in his pitch for a glossy new British baccalaureate – and it’s not like he did anything at the Treasury to help ensure schools had the cash required to educate the next generation. Quite the opposite, in fact. In June 2021, Boris Johnson’s “school catch-up tsar”, Kevan Collins, quit his role in protest at the paltry amount of funding available. He had designed an ambitious £15bn programme to help pupils make up lost learning after more than a year of disrupted school, including months of lockdown during which millions of children received barely any teaching at all. The amount he was offered was less than a tenth of that.
Who was the chancellor that decided pupils didn’t need the extra support? A certain Rishi Sunak.
I’m not an education expert, but I’m guessing if you really want to prepare young people for the “economy of tomorrow”, making sure they don’t leave school with massive gaps in their knowledge because the government couldn’t be bothered to make up Covid learning losses would be more of a priority than reimagining A-levels. Promising a wholesale curriculum rejig right now is like boasting about the plans for your fancy new conservatory when the roof of your house is literally falling down. Sunak had the chance to put his money where his mouth is on education, and he demonstrated exactly how seriously he takes it.
“I think education is the most powerful way you can transform people’s lives,” Sunak said in the Sunday Times interview, as proof of just how much he cares about it. Just not enough to actually fund it.