What has happened to education reform? Since the highly successful introduction of free schools by Michael Gove in 2010, the Conservatives seem to have given up on schools. There have been just two major education policies in the last seven years: “Academisation”, George Osborne’s sleight of hand designed to shift blame for education cuts from the Treasury to the Department of Education (bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Nicky Morgan swallowed it whole), and Grammar schools, a half-baked, quick-fix policy designed to butter up the May-sceptic right of the party and show that Theresa May could be more than the Brexit Prime Minister. Both were guided by internal party politics rather than the needs of young people, and both fizzled out when allegiances shifted in the higher echelons of the Conservative Party.
Unsurprisingly, these seven years of Government neglect have left their mark on the school system. Most notably in the form of a teacher shortage epidemic. In the last year alone, teacher vacancies have risen by 26 per cent: Department of Education figures reluctantly released earlier this summer show that in November 2016, there were 920 vacancies for full-time permanent teachers in state-funded schools, up from 730 the year before. A further 3,280 full-time posts were being temporarily filled by a teacher on a contract of less than one year.
If Theresa May wants to prove that her Government can withstand hordes of evangelical Corbynistas – who spent the summer whipping up feverish support in marginal constituencies – solving the teacher crisis and restoring British schools to health would be a good place to start. The situation is dire, but there are solutions – and, conveniently, they are all rooted in Conservative ideology.
First, recruitment strategy needs an urgent overhaul. Bright, outgoing young people who would have a natural flair for teaching tend to avoid the profession, not because it is badly paid (a newly qualified teacher in inner London earns more than a junior doctor, or graduate on the Civil Service or PWC graduate schemes), but because they see it as a job for those who haven’t found anything else. To anyone who has worked with young people, it is obvious that the most seductive university courses and graduate programmes are those which boast only to accept a small percentage of their applicants, not those which offer to hoover up the leftovers. Competition breeds competition, and scarcity is a measure of success.
A comparison of PGCE applications and medical school applications throws the problem into sharp relief. From the perspective of a school or university leaver, there are plenty of superficial similarities between being a doctor and being a teacher: both require extra years in education, both work with the public, both have low starting salaries and both are exceptionally challenging and rewarding. But while PGCE courses – which have simple application processes – scrape the bottom of the barrel for maths teachers whose most relevant qualification is a level 5 in a Year 6 maths SATs paper, medical schools – which have notoriously tough application processes – are so oversubscribed they are now having to turn away 9 in 10 of their straight A applicants.
This simple problem has a simple solution: inject some competition into the teaching recruitment process. Teach First has the right idea. Instead of begging and bribing ambitious young graduates into teaching by lowering standards and offering cheap rent, Teach First advertises itself as a prestigious and competitive programme which will only accept the brightest and the best. Applying to Teach First is a laborious, tricky process, yet every day for three months, the Teach First Assessment Centre room is filled with 100 talented young people competing to teach in deprived, difficult schools in unknown areas for unremarkable salaries – that’s 9000 graduates a year.
The Government needs to take a leaf out of the Teach First book, and a sensible starting point would be a professional, well-funded Government marketing campaign which presented teaching as a competitive career choice with a rigorous application process.
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Second, it’s been proven time and time again that a small state is better for education. People on the ground know best what the children in their communities can achieve, which is why free schools, set up by local teachers and parents, have blown traditional state schools out of the water in this year’s GCSE and A level results. The London Academy of Excellence in the deprived area of Newham got 15 of its pupils into Oxbridge; King’s College Mathematics School, a specialist sixth form college, topped the Times’ A level results table; and 70% of pupils at the Harris Academy in Westminster secured places at Russell Group universities.
Forcing all schools to convert to free schools or academies (the dreaded “academisation”) would be disastrous (interfering with any thriving school is always a terrible idea) but giving local people the option of educating their own children if they wish is clearly working. To make free schools really take off, May’s Government need to stop hedging its bets, and start throwing the full weight of its support behind enterprising, entrepreneurial teachers and parents who are working tirelessly to set them up.
Finally, the Conservatives need to cut the ridiculous amount of red tape in education. Schools are not only failing to attract enough new teachers, they are also shedding existing teachers at an alarming rate: 10,000 departed the profession between 2010 and 2015, and the pace of that loss is speeding up as disillusionment grows. As Mary Bousted, leader of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), points out, most of a teacher’s time is spent on “bureaucratic paper filling, data driven, mind-numbingly useless work” rather than teaching children. Prospective teachers are put off the profession by the sheer amount of work, while those already in the profession are leaving in their droves. Significant change will only come from above with one radical reform designed to end bureaucracy in education once and for all. We’re doing it with Brexit, why not with schools too?
Recruiting and retaining good teachers shouldn’t be so difficult. It’s about the most important job there is, and every teacher I’ve ever met finds working with children and young people incredibly rewarding. Competition, local involvement and less bureaucracy is what’s needed – and the Conservative Government, when it wakes up and smells the coffee, is in the best position to provide all three.