Thursday, 30 April 2015

Education, Education, Education? Not this election

With electioneering in the UK hitting some remarkably cynical, free spending lows one searches in vain for the “Education, Education, Education” mantra that helped elect Tony Blair in 1997. Late in the game, as we build to a tumult of voter indecision and disbelief the Lib Dems have decided that “nothing is more important than the education of our young.” Of the 1.3 million of us working in schools how many will welcome Cameron’s promised “major education reform within 50 days.” Every time I hear a politician talking, “passionate” I shudder in anticipation of ill advised, ideologically driven meddling and tinkering from career politicians who show as much passion as a formica table. (“They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but it is not one half so bad as a lot of ignorance”) 

Young teachers are fleeing our exam factories and ten year olds are being turned off by SATs practice after practice to secure schools’ league table status. 2017 marks the exit plans for many school leaders: new memory-testing exams, an ever deepening crisis in teacher recruitment, unmanageable finances and the SEN malaise combine as these Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse drive us to breakdown. 

Here’s an election nutshell: the Conservative Party will open 500+ more Free Schools, whilst Labour will open new schools that are “parent-led academies.” Apart from competing and vague rhetoric on apprenticeships, literacy, vocational routes and regional commissioners that’s it for content. School funding will be cut. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (26-03-15) Conservative, Labour and Liberal pledges, “all suggest a real-terms reduction of 7% per child by 2020.” TheTories claim they are “committed to delivering a good deal for schools.” Labour just say they have, “a better plan” and the Lib Dems say protecting funding in schools is a “red line” issue – a deal beaker in any coalition. The IFS go on to claim that the cut in funding will be nearer 12%. 

National Insurance, pension contributions, a 1% pay rise for teachers, 2% for non teachers and some incremental progression gtotals a 7.26% increase in our staff costs in 2015-16. Staff are 80% of our total costs. Our income per student has already been reduced and will be reduced further. My school budget for 2016-17 shows a deficit of £550,259. And the next year we will be another £900,528 short. By 2018 staff will cost 100.4% of our income so no lights will be turned on. Can someone, please, donate some toilet roll. (This isn’t life in the fast lane. This is life in the oncoming traffic.”) 

Private companies will experience some of these costs and they will put prices, and inflation, up. 

To transcend dread, I imagined that the late Terry Pratchett wrote specifically about the 2015 election. Quotations from his novels are presented in brackets and italics; I hope many of you will know why I couldn’t use capitals. So if you can read on with an open mind…(“the trouble with having an open mind, of course, is that people will insist on coming along and trying to put things in it.”) 

All three of the big parties, and the Lib Dems may not qualify for this status after May 4th, seem to have abandoned any notion of austerity and instead adopted a series of promises to “spend, spend, spend” and to give us all cash. 25 hours (Labour) 30 hours (Conservative) free childcare (£6,000 a year in Ware) tax breaks, savings bonuses and stamp duty exemption for first time buyers by parties pledged to build up to 1,000,000 houses. Conservatives will sell off Housing Association properties to whichever of the 1.3 million tenants is willing to accept a massive bribe. 

The last time we sold off our public housing had some interesting consequences. A GMB investigation into the “right to buy” scheme in Wandsworth found that of the 15,874 dwellings sold under right to buy 6,180 are now owned by private landlords. Tenants took the subsidy, bought their council house and then sold it on at a massive profit as soon as possible. 

The GMB claim that taxpayers, through the government’s housing benefits scheme, paid £9.300,000,000 to private landlords in 2014. We are being asked to put monetary self-interest first and last, a bit like animals putting their need for food as their sole task. Should there be a wider agenda for us? (“Personal’s not the same as important.”) 

During this frenzied period of political cross dressing all parties are promising up to £8 billion for the NHS, which is reeling from the latest £20 billion of cuts and expensive, unnecessary reorganisation. Labour promises minimum wages will rise by a third and Electricity, train fares and rents will be as good as frozen. All parties say that fewer people will pay tax. Some are giving tax breaks to the poor, others to the rich and, regarding inheritance tax, to those approaching death. 

Ken Clarke, the previous Tory Chancellor has warned against “silly” giveaways that will cost £20 billion by 2020. Austerity has faded in return for votes, and there’s still a week to go. How will you decide between parties? (“You think there are the good people and the bad people. You are wrong, of course. There are, always and only, the bad people, but some of them are on opposite sides.)” 

My union, ASCL, spent a year on “The Great Education Debate” culminating in a splendid, visionary self-improving school–led system for promoting excellence. All sorts of politicians have signed up to the vision. I can imagine our ASCL leader Brian Lightman saying, “I told you they were listening,” until, Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan agreed 100% …and added, “control of the curriculum is best left to politicians.” Oh dear, Brian. (“The trouble was that he was talking in philosophy but they were listening in gibberish”) 

Our Prime Minister is so convinced that voters do not believe politicians’ promises that he will pass a law so that his own party cannot raise Income Tax, VAT or National Insurance contributions over the next five years, becoming the first ever government to give up this power. 

A general election that offers us everything if we have money, food banks if we don’t. (“His philosophy was a mixture of three famous schools – the Cynics, the Stoics and the Epicureans – and he summed up all three of them in his famous phrase, ‘You can’t trust any bugger further than you can throw him, and there’s nothing you can do about it, so let’s have a drink.”) 

Dennis O’Sullivan 
30th April 2015

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