Rishi Sunak’s first days in office will remind all teachers of the start of a new school term. Everything is still neat and tidy, the people you work with (both grown-ups and juveniles) are refreshed and eager to please, and the agenda is yours to set. In Sunak’s case, he has put education front and centre, saying that education is the “silver bullet in public policy” that will put Britain on the path to prosperity over the summer. But just like the naive teacher at the front of the weary class, the new PM’s claims will ring hollow. After more than a decade of broken Tory promises and six education secretaries in 14 months, staff, students and parents are in no mood for idle words.
A Conservative push on skills and education is nothing new. It was only last year (though it feels much longer) that Johnson promised to invest in “skills, skills, skills” at the 2021 party conference, linking it to Britain’s post-Brexit economic recovery. It’s the same angle as the 2019 Tory manifesto, which declared education “the most important thing… to unleash the UK’s potential”. In 2017, Theresa May’s industrial strategy promised investment in technical education for the “high-paid, high-skilled jobs of the future”, which was almost exactly what Michael Gove said back in 2014, is pretty much indistinguishable from the Conservative manifesto in 2010.
With all these tributes paid to the importance of education, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Tories have spent the past 12 years making good on their words by investing judiciously in schools and skills. Instead, and directly as a result of under-investment by successive governments, we’ve seen a collapse in per-pupil funding in the state sector; schools are crumbling before our eyes; the long-overlooked early years sector is facing a staffing crisis, to say nothing of the disastrous teacher recruitment figures in schools; students are still reeling from the aftershocks of the pandemic that has hit the most disadvantaged the hardest; and the UK’s catch-up funding has been pitiful, with much of it allocated to a worse-than-useless tuition programme. It’s no wonder that unions are agitating for the biggest teacher strike in a generation.
There’s something deeply tragic about hearing promising (if vague) ideas and knowing they’ll never amount to anything. Funding uplifts for early years and a “British baccalaureate” would both be steps in the right direction, but they would require investment and bureaucracy on a scale that would outrage the Tory right, including Sunak himself, with barely two years between now and the last possible date for a general election.
Sunak remains bound by the Conservatives’ fundamental problem with education policy: it takes far longer than one electoral cycle for a return on investment to become apparent. Had the government put together a meaningful reform package before torpedoing their own electoral hopes with a succession of scandals, perhaps they wouldn’t be facing the dual challenges of both urgent funding demands and costly long-term projects. As it is, though, they’ve got neither the political capital nor the spending capacity to deal with either. As any teacher will tell you, it’s their own time they’ve been wasting.