Just the other day Geoff Barton, head of the school leaders’ union ASCL, quoted Barack Obama’s view that our problem is not the hugeness of the challenges that face us, but the smallness of our politics in addressing them. How prophetic this week’s events have proved him
I remember, in 2004, hearing Mike Tomlinson, formerly the boss of Ofsted, outlining his proposals for review of the 14-19 school and college curriculum: there was already doubt that Tony Blair’s government would accept them.
A mischievous questioner asked what would happen next. With a smile, Tomlinson replied that, in most such cases, either government would accept and implement the report: or they’d send the author a letter thanking him warmly, regretting its inability to implement all but a handful of his recommendations, and offering him a knighthood.
When I see Sir Mike at a meeting later this month (see what I did there?), I won’t enjoy reminding him of that conversation as much as I might have done, for it’s happened again. Sir Kevan Collins, appointed as government’s education recovery commissioner, already has a knighthood: but otherwise educational history is about to repeat itself.
Just as, in 2004, the Blair administration lacked courage, resolve or vision to revise education and exams through the last four-five years of schooling, so our current government has chosen to reject all but a fraction of the recommendations made by one of the most experienced and respected figures in education, prompting his resignation.
Sir Kevan recommended lengthening the school day for three years: a modest half-hour a day to help children to catch up not only on the maths and English (sorry, numeracy and literacy) about which ministers routinely obsess, but also the arts, sport and sheer social interaction of which they have arguably missed even more during lockdown.
Thirty minutes a day is not, surely, a big ask for a government prepared to spray money around in this emergency: and don’t believe vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi when he claimed (to ITV’s Robert Peston) that teacher unions were blocking it.
Sir Kevan priced it at £15bn. It’s a lot: but there are some 30,000 schools in the country. Crucially, Sir Kevan wanted the overwhelming majority of that money directed into schools, allowing them decide what was most useful and valuable for their pupils in their setting.
Alarm bells sounded in the Treasury. The sum was too huge to spaff (a Boris word) on education, when government’s got HS2, new nuclear weapons and a Royal (sorry, national) Yacht to pay for. Even worse, delegating such huge sums down to the local level is unthinkable for the Chancellor, and his minions. Delegating means trusting and losing control, anathema to the keepers of the nation’s purse-strings.
So, instead of finding the £15 billion needed to do the job properly, government’s putting in £1.4bn, just ten percent of what’s needed, equating to £17 per pupil per term. Okay, if you believe Education Secretary Gavin Williamson you can add in the £1.7bn he claims he’s already spent, though not as part of this plan.
Little will go into schools, government setting aside £400 million for as-yet-unspecified teacher training, and outsourcing tutoring to a private company at a cost of £¾bn. Williamson feebly attempted to justify this travesty of provision yesterday as “delivering interventions”.
We shouldn’t be surprised. Witness government’s untendered procurement of both PPE and the “world-beating” test and trace system. With typical shortness of memory, government forgets that the colossal success of the vaccine roll out is being achieved not by private outsourcing but by NHS working with Local Authorities and local health services.
Home Office Minister Victoria Atkins, the latest poor sap to be stuck up like an Aunt Sally to justify the indefensible, referred lamentably this morning to “taking parents and teachers with us on this journey” and “supporting teachers to deliver this package of work”.
Her meaningless mantras serve to demonstrate the truth of Geoff Barton’s comment, applicable as much to our politicians as to our politics. Their pitiful, mean-spirited response to the Collins recovery plan truly shines a light on what Geoff called “the squalid, unambitious lamentable smallness of our politics”.