EDUCATION is the biggest dividing line in the General Election.
And it is one battleground where Jeremy Corbyn and Labour can win big time.
Education determines an apprenticeship, a university place, job opportunity, home, happiness, health, career, earning potential and a person’s whole life.
It also divides our country on class lines and underpins the status quo, where the rich get richer and the rest of us do the best we can with what is left.
On one hand Theresa May’s Tories offer SAT tests and selection at every level, privatisation of schools via the sinister academy system, grammar schools and private institutions such as Eton and Westminster, charging up to £36,000 a year for the very wealthy to educate their offspring.
On the other hand, Labour is offering a free and fair education system for everyone, where success does not depend on wealth, social class or exam results.
Ironic, because today, MPs questioned “how much of a grip” the Tory government’s Department for Education has on providing school places where they are really needed.
The system is “increasingly incoherent and too often poor value for money,” says the Public Accounts Committee.
And the government is spending “well over the odds” on free schools or academies while other schools are in poor condition, concludes the cross-party committee.
But Theresa May has already tied her education policy to so-called free schools and the failed grammar school system.
Last September she put grammar schools back at the heart of Conservative thinking for the first time since the 1970s.
For May, the return of selection is part of an attempt to redefine the Conservatives as a party of meritocracy and exam success.
Tory Ministers also say controversial free schools are key to meeting demand for school places.
The government pledged to open 500 more free schools, which are state-funded but independently run, by 2020 and has plans for a further 110.
It is a huge mistake, which panders to their friends in big business.
For the past three months I helped campaign against the academisation of a vibrant primary school in Hastings, in East Sussex.
I saw at first-hand how schools and children’s futures were being handed into the private control of multi-millionaire businessmen, who in turn had unhealthy links to senior politicians.
Those running the academies, or free schools, earn vast salaries while the education of the children often suffers.
One head of a primary academy chain took home a salary in excess of £200,000, after being handed a massive pay rise.
He also received £28,316 in pension contributions, which took his overall remuneration package to £229,138.
This is more than the Prime Minister and many city bankers.
Last year delegates at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers conference in Liverpool, heard that growing numbers of academy heads were now also earning more than the PM’s salary of £149,440 a year.
“When schools were under local council control, it would have been unthinkable as well as impossible that a headteacher, of even a group of schools, could earn more than a director of education, let alone the Secretary of State for Education, let alone the Prime Minister,” Simon Clarkson from Leicestershire told the conference.
“We need to guard against the rot of greed.”
Mr Clarkson concluded: “Our state schools are paid for by the public. They need to be accountable. Let me remind you whose money is being used to do this… ours!”
Now the National Audit Office agrees that further academisation of schools is a “significant risk to long-term value for money”.
The Public Accounts Committee MPs say that having enough school places in safe, high-quality buildings, where they are needed, is crucial.
“Without this, parents may have less choice, pupils may have inconvenient journeys to school and the learning environment may be less effective, putting educational outcomes at risk,” they say.
They note that 420,000 new school places will be needed by 2021, many in secondary schools where provision is more expensive than at primary level.
“In the context of severe financial constraints, it is vital that the department uses its funding in a more coherent and cost effective way,” say the MPs, adding that too many free schools are in unsuitable temporary buildings, lacking outside space and sports facilities.
Committee chairwoman Meg Hillier said the free schools programme was “diverting a lot of money” from school maintenance.
“What we want to see is a much more balanced programme of capital funding so that existing poor school buildings get the funding and investment they need and those new schools are built.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the report reflected head teachers’ concerns.
“Creating surplus places is an inefficient use of public money and damages existing schools where spare capacity is created,” he said.
Kevin Courtney, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, added: “Free schools do not address the school-place crisis, often being built in areas of no need and often in unsuitable premises.
“This policy is not evidenced based and is nothing to do with the wellbeing of children or providing a sound education.”
Labour’s Angela Rayner, shadow education secretary, says the free school programme was incoherent and inefficient.
“In the recent Budget, the chancellor announced plans that would only create one-sixth of the school places we will need by 2021, and even those plans were drastically underfunded,” she said.
“Tory academy plans are in complete chaos.
“The impossible job the Department for Education has set itself in trying to directly run thousands of schools from Whitehall is fully exposed as we learn over half of existing academy chains have refused to take on schools and 70% of inadequate academies have been left languishing with poor academy chains.”
Labour’s plans for education are, in contrast, broad-reaching and inclusive.
Jeremy Corbyn made education a central theme of his campaign for re-election as Labour leader, lamenting the “commodification” of the education system.
Labour’s proposed national education service is impressive.
It starts with a principle that education is a public good. Learning should be provided from cradle to grave.
From there, it goes to universal free childcare, building on the success of Sure Start – something which has been dismantled by the Tories.
Next, Labour pledges decent schools for all, including class sizes of under 30, an idea so universal that the only question it raises is why it’s not already the case.
Labour also advocates free tertiary education and the abolition on university tuition fees.
Finally, the promise of investment in adult education is a huge vote winner – who could possibly want adults to be less skilled, less fulfilled, than they could be?
And today Labour pledged to bring back maintenance grants for the poorest students and restore the abolished financial support allowance.
Labour will reverse the decision to replace means-tested grants for university students with loans, announced by George Osborne in his final budget.
It will also reinstate the Education Maintenance Allowance, a means-tested cash payment, for 16- and 17-year-olds from poorer families choosing to remain in education.
Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies think-tank suggested the EMA, which was worth £30 a week, helped boost participation among teenagers.
But it was abolished in 2011 as part of the Tory coalition government’s efforts to reduce the deficit and replaced with a much less generous bursary system.
Ms Rayner said the twin announcements: “Show that while the Tories continue to burden our young people with debt, the Labour Party is committed to investing in our young people.
“It is only by investing in education that we can ensure that all of our young people, whatever their background, are able to succeed in whatever they aspire to.
“When we can help improve the education of over a million young people with a small increase in corporation tax, it is an investment we would be foolish not to make.”
Labour says the policy could be paid for through a 1.5% increase in corporation tax.
Analysts say such a move would raise £3billion a year.
Meanwhile education trade unions have urged all parents to turn education cuts into the election battleground.
The National Union of Teachers says the General Election offers an opportunity to fight for better resourced schools and teachers.
Kevin Courtney told the union’s annual conference the snap election was an opportunity to challenge the funding shortages in England.
“In the run-up to this election, parents must demand of all politicians: will they invest in our country, will they invest in our children?” he told delegates in Cardiff.
“I don’t believe there’s a parent anywhere in this country who voted for their child’s class size to go up, or voted for their child to lose the opportunity to do art or dance or music.
“We can reach parents with this and we can make a difference in the general election.”
The NUT’s call on funding was joined by other unions, including those representing headteachers.
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Our top message is that there is insufficient funding in the education system. We call on all political parties to commit to investing in education as part of a long-term economic plan.”
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said his union would also campaign over the school funding cuts.
“There are crises, like teacher recruitment and the £3billion of cuts the government expects schools to make, that should not be forgotten during the election campaign,” he said.
The education battle lines are drawn and it gives Jeremy Corbyn and Labour its best platform to win the General Election.
- If you are not yet convinced, read the words of one teacher, Rebecca Bee:
“Let me start by saying that I am not concerned about my pay. I don’t want more money.
What I am concerned about are the cuts that the Conservative government makes to education are huge, life-changing cuts that are having a detrimental effect on the mental health and well-being of a massive number of children and young people.
Michael Gove started his annihilation of the A*-G GCSE system back in 2010, and this year we see the first string of examinations take place.
“More rigour” was the battle cry. However, did you know that the new GCSE English Literature exam is a closed-book?
This means that no student will be given a copy of the text in their exam – not even SEND (special educational needs and disabilities) students, many of which have recall and memory problems.
The GCSE English Language exam uses extracts from heritage texts that carry a reading age of approximately 17.
The average reading age of a GCSE-level student is 14.
So why are we asking our students to read and analyse texts that are aimed at someone with a reading age 3 years above their own? Some of my students have a reading age of 9. They cannot in any way access the papers.
We still don’t know how the new GCSEs are going to be graded.
Schools are in disarray as they know one thing to be true – if their GCSE results are bad, Ofsted will swoop in, prepared to announce them as “requiring improvement”.
Excessive testing at ages 7 and 11 has led to children prepared for tests, but little else.
These exams are completely arbitrary and do not test the skills required for success at GCSE and in adult life.
I agree that students need to leave primary school ‘secondary ready’.
But, I do not think that testing students’ ability to identify grammatical items over their ability to compose a creative piece is the best way to do it.
I have a firm belief that testing students does not make them better learners.
We do not need grammar schools. We don’t. Not until all other schools are funded well, and equally.
If we increase funding to all state schools to a level reflective of needs, we allow teachers to develop a ‘grammar curriculum’ and give schools ‘grammar resources’ and invest in better pastoral care, then we won’t need more grammar schools.
Why do we need to build more schools when we can just give more money to existing ones? Why, at a time where funding is in crisis, are we investing in new grammars and not existing schools?
When I entered teaching in 2005, most classes had a learning support assistant (you may know them as a TA).
These people were incredibly important – they worked with SEND students, BESD (behavioural, social and emotional difficulties) students, assisted with students who had been absent or were having trouble accessing the curriculum and they did this on minimal pay, with minimal complaint.
This government has cut spending on education to the point where these TAs are rare, or simply don’t exist.
The excessive cuts to education also mean that many schools are now in a situation where they are considering making cuts in the curriculum and getting rid of specific subjects, usually the arts – the subjects that make them well-rounded thinkers, evaluative learners and creative, motivated individuals.
Why the arts? Well, because they don’t add “rigour”!
These decisions are being made every damn day, because the government have headteachers over a barrel.
You must succeed. You must get above average pass rates. You must push out students with E-Baccs. If you don’t, we will academise you.
Are we here to provide exam factories that churn out identikit students?
Don’t be blinded by May. She wants you to be blinkered and she wants you to ignore the massive demolition of education. Don’t give her what she wants.”