Reflections on the proposals for education in the Queen’s Speech 2017 – Graham Clayton

It is always difficult to be sure of the true personalities of public figures. They create only impressions. Their true personalities are known only to those who know them well.

But that said, many of Theresa May’s public pronouncements have certainly lacked substance, whilst she has appeared mistakenly to believe that her words carry great Prime Ministerial weight. The woman who when asked how she had misbehaved could think only of running through wheat fields damaging the crop, has all too often startled us with her lack of understanding of the trials and tribulations of the lives of most of us. We have been treated to the stark meaninglessness of “Brexit means Brexit” on which a crucially important government policy is apparently constructed, and when tackling the horror of the London Bridge terrorist attack, the Prime Minister informed us that the time had come to say ‘enough is enough’ as if all previous horrific attacks had not really been quite sufficient. Every statement is read from a prepared script giving the impression that she lacks the ability for spontaneous heartfelt compassion. When confronting foreign leaders, particularly those who line up against her Brexit objectives she appears uneasy and somehow unsteady on inappropriate shoes. The near catastrophic political misjudgement of her decision to call a General Election in June, throwing away her already slim Parliamentary majority, and her dreadful personalised campaign can only be taken as evidence that she is out of touch from the real lives of most of us.

The Government’s post election education policy is evidently and like so much else not the one the Prime Minister wanted or intended. With dissent in her own Parliamentary ranks, she has been obliged, at least specifically, to shelve her plans to create new grammar schools and do away with free school meals for infants. So much to the good because she has not been able to develop rational argument for either measure. But what is left is so empty, so utterly meaningless as to be hardly worth saying, whilst the national education service continues to suffer from low morale, underfunding and growing confusion in structure and organisation.

The short paragraph on education in the queen’s speech began with nothing more than a bland repetition –

“My government will continue to work to ensure that every child has the opportunity to attend a good school and that all schools are fairly funded. My ministers will work to ensure people have the skills they need for the high-skilled, high-wage jobs of the future …”

It is not so much that no-one could disagree with this, but rather that every politician with any involvement with education policy has already promised it numerous times. By their own implicit admission, they have failed to achieve it despite nigh on 30 years of reform that could be considered to have support from a Maoist theory of continuous revolution.

The sentence then continued –

“… including through a major reform of technical education”

Here then at least we had a proposal for action inspiring an enquiry into the background notes to the speech – to be found on pages 63 to 65 of the briefing paper under the heading “Non-legislative measures”.

The first page of the Briefing promises more of the same plentifully seasoned with self-congratulatory observations unrecogniseable to New Visions for Education colleagues. Half of the second page is taken up with renewed promises for fair funding including the quite remarkable assertion that the consultation on a National Funding Formula for schools “to make funding fairer” has been widely welcomed across the sector.

So to technical education – with a promise of an extra half a billion pounds a year in England’s technical education system together with the introduction of “15 technical education routes (within which sit “T-levels”) based on standards designed by employers and grouping together occupations where there are shared training requirements”.

Plus new Institutes of Technology enabling more young people to take advanced technical qualifications and millions more high quality apprenticeships.

It’s a very welcome plan of the kind which governments of almost every party would propose. But sadly it sits uneasily with other features of the Briefing and looks very stark against the void of what is missing from Theresa May’s government policy.

There is perhaps a clue to the real ironies in this briefing in these words which introduce the section on technical education –

“This Government is determined to create a world-class technical education system and see technical excellence valued as highly as academic success.”

Elsewhere in its proposals the Government has reasserted its commitment to creating “academies” as its route to achieving the goal of a good school for every pupil, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the very name of these schools elevates the academic above the technical. Nor, it seems, has the Prime Minister’s personal commitment to selective secondary education with clear preference for the academic disappeared completely as the Briefing offers an examination of “all options” and “working with Parliament to bring forward proposals that can command a majority” to secure the Government’s goals.

Looking at these apparently contradictory statements, it’s hard not to detect the tang of hypocrisy. But should we be surprised ? The traditional Tory belief in education is that it serves the purpose of creating a group or class which has the function of running things. We can no longer fairly call it a ruling class. In the 21st century that would be absurd. But the core theory of economic, governmental and social management has not been abandoned. Indeed it is all too commonly central to the patronising way in which the rich west sees its role in “aiding” development in the global south.

It’s a theory of social and economic management to which many expert people attach much credibility, but for others, and I include myself amongst them it is the source of profound economic unfairness and ultimately of social division and conflict. Far better is it to commit to quality education for all respecting of every contribution of every skill and talent.

We are right then to be distrustful of a commitment by a Conservative Government to make technical excellence as highly valued as academic success when we see such fundamental contradiction in the briefest of policy statements.

And most of all we must engage in the education debate with a new depth of appreciation and understanding. There are big issues to be addressed and they cannot be addressed by a government which hides behind meaningless observations and self congratulatory assertions that everything in the garden is rosy and getting rosier whilst those who work within and truly know the system are intensely aware of the exact opposite. It is indeed time to say, and this time with accuracy, that enough is enough.

October 2017

Graham Clayton is a member and officer of the New Visions for Education Group and former Senior Solicitor at the National Union of Teachers, now part of the National Education Union.