Two factors that influence all education policy in UK can be seen in every debate running through 2016.
First, as Laura McInerney wrote recently, politicians in successive governments have worked from the premise that we can no longer afford public education on a national scale. This economic imperative drives the reform agenda that began in the 1980s and has seen the rate of change increasing each year including the last one. It is worth pausing and asking why we can no longer afford to educate children and also how did we ever afford it in the past. The answer would lie in the low rates of income tax we now pay compared to the past. In an economy built on individual consumerism, income tax is bad because it gets in the way of us buying what we want. A progressive tax system that takes too much from the rich would also hit the financial services on which London’s economy relies because the merchant bankers would go and live somewhere else. The power of financial institutions ensures no political party would be elected on a promise to increase income tax and therefore we are stuck with insufficient funding for all the things that governments do: education, health, police, prisons etc.
The lack of money is the reason why we are heading towards an education system based on unqualified teachers with minimal training working for a couple of years before going off to do something else. The poor retention rate of teachers is not a crisis but a policy which is gradually reducing the immediate overall cost of education and taking away the longer term issue of pension liability.
In order to justify policies, politicians need a narrative of educational crisis that cuts through the complexities of learning and presents simple commodified truths. At a primary level, this narrative of crisis has been used to throw away the sustainable steady improvement that had lead to arguably the best education this country has ever seen and replace it with short term ineffective alternatives centred around ideas such as Superheads, Troops into Teachers etc
The lack of money also explains why we end up with ridiculous ideas such as the Private Finance Initiative or student loans both of which delay costs for future generations to pick up. The problem is that future generations will not be able to afford it either.
This leads on to the second factor that impacts on all policy which is that the increase in world population means there will less money for education in the future. The world has finite resources and a finite market for what can be created from those resources. Attempts to create larger free markets have come off the rails because of people’s dislike for immigration. Brexit and Trump will not change the fundamental economics which mean that countries in Western Europe and North America will be able to exploit a decreasing proportion of the world’s resources in order to achieve growth and pay for policies such as universal education.
In this situation, politicians have done a very good job in separating themselves from the crises that are being created. Hospital trusts take the blame for patients being left on trolleys in corridors not the Department of Health. Similarly, in education, Academy Trusts are beginning to be held responsible for the impact of cuts to education rather than the DfE. In this situation, it is unsurprising that Academy Trusts and Free Schools are leading the way in finding cheap alternatives to qualified, experienced and expensive teachers.
The problem to be grappled with in 2017 is that cheap alternatives do not work for a proportion of children. It is the most vulnerable who will suffer from the decrease in experience and expertise in the profession. The children whose brains are wired in ways that make the storing of information difficult will pay for the narrowing of pedagogy. Rather than finding ways to overcome barriers for children, 2017 will see cuts that increase those barriers and increase inequality.
Reasons for optimism in 2017 can be found in the large numbers of teachers who maintain a vocation to the most vulnerable in their schools. These teachers and headteachers don’t separate the deserving poor (increasingly seen as those with the ability to memorise) and exclude the rest but work inclusively for all in their community.
Optimism also comes from the numbers of teachers who recognise the importance of increasing understanding across the transitions. Opportunities for KS2 and Ks3 teachers to work together would support the development of pedagogy and remove some of the misunderstandings that underpin the less constructive ‘debates’.
Finally, optimism can be found in the upcoming launch of the Chartered College of Teaching. Alison Peacock and her colleagues have done a good job in creating a structure that can represent and articulate teaching in its breadth. Above all else, in 2017, I wish Alison and the trustees well. In the context of a long term decline in education spending, the College has a key role to play in supporting all teachers.