Will Bickford Smith is a Government consultant and a committee member of the Conservative Education Society. He is a former teacher and a Teach First Ambassador. He tweets at @WBickfordSmith
“The greatest injustice in Britain today is that your life is still largely determined not by your efforts and talents but by where you come from, who your parents are and what schools you attend” (Conservative Party Manifesto, 2017)
With an expectation that 90 per cent of pupils will take the EBacc by 2025, whilst placing greater demands on elite universities and private schools to support the state sector, and ensuring all schools are fairly funded – with no school having its budget cut – the message from Theresa May couldn’t be clearer: we’re levelling the playing field; it’s time to deliver.
Running through this manifesto is a clear vision for English schooling. All pupils – regardless of geography, ethnicity or their parent’s wealth – should receive a broad, rigorous and well-funded education up until age 16. After this, they have the choice between taking a high-quality apprenticeship or undertaking further academic study, and going on to university. So whilst every child has different interests, strengths and ambitions, our level of expectations for them, and the quality of education they should receive, remains consistently high.
As a society, we have for too long tolerated a system which says that it is acceptable for a privileged child at a top private school in Berkshire to enjoy the rich diet of a traditional liberal education, whilst expecting much less for a poor child from Bradford or Burnley. Reforming primary school assessment will reduce teaching to the test and enable teachers to focus on teaching rich and broad content to their pupils. Furthermore, the aim to have 90 per cent of secondary school pupils taking the EBacc by 2025 will mean that we have the highest expectations for all of our young people.
With Brexit on the horizon, demanding that all our young people are literate, numerate, fluent in science, a humanity and a foreign language, should be the bare minimum we expect for the huge public investment we make in education. But more than this, the EBacc target commits us all to the principle that no matter what our young people decide to do after school, they will have the foundation of knowledge needed to go on and make the most of their talents and lead a fulfilling life. The creation of a curriculum fund to “encourage Britain’s leading cultural and scientific institutions, like the British Museum and others to help develop knowledge-rich materials for our schools” will raise standards, help teachers and introduce our children to some of this nation’s proudest institutions.
Of course, this will mean that a good number of schools will need to adjust their curriculum and staffing to ensure that they are meeting this target, but they have ample time to do so. Indeed, what is striking about this manifesto is the level stability it will provide. There will be no more tinkering with structures and the curriculum. (For all the noise that will be generated by the pledge to “lift the ban on the establishment of selective schools”, this does not impact on a headteacher’s ability to plan for the future, and should not be used as a smokescreen for failure). And this stability will be compounded with stability in school funding, with many schools receiving an increase in budgets – tackling years of unfairness - and not a single school seeing their budget cut, due to an injection of an additional £4 billion until 2022. So no more complaining about funding; let’s focus on what actually goes on inside the classroom.
To help classroom teachers – without whom none of this will ever be possible – there is a pledge to “provide greater support…in the preparation of lessons and marking” and to “bear down on unnecessary paperwork and the burden of Ofsted inspections”. Teachers go into the profession because they are passionate about their subject and want to change lives and pass their knowledge onto the next generation. Ill-thought out school initiatives, poor behaviour and preparing for Ofsted get in the way and ware teachers down. The Conservatives understand this, and will do everything they can to allow them to focus on enhancing their classroom practice.
So, in order to create “the world’s great meritocracy”, the message from the Conservative manifesto is clear: we need to do more for our young people. A Conservative government will offer stability, fairness and financial security, and a better deal for teachers. In turn, it’s time to deliver for every child in every corner of our nation.