Steve Mastin: Here’s how our next Prime Minister can carry forward the Conservative education agenda
Steve Mastin is a state school history teacher and vice-president of the Conservative Education Society.
Whether Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt, whoever is our Prime Minister has said that education is a top priority.
Much of the heavy lifting has been done and our educational reforms since 2010 have been impressive. I have been a state school teacher in South Cambridgeshire for 17 years, and I am proud of what the Conservatives have achieved.
Credit where it’s due, Tony Blair allowed a few schools to be free of local authority shackles. But we went further and offered that freedom to every state school in the country. If a headmistress can run her own independent school – ethos, pay and conditions, curriculum, behaviour – why can’t a state school headteacher? I am proud that many more children go to schools graded good or outstanding since we came to power.
Before 2010, students could re-sit exam after exam until they achieved the grade they wanted. Years ago, one of my students even remarked to me that she was going to miss my ever-so important history lesson to re-sit a maths exam because she was two marks away from an A* grade. This exam pressure on young people was wrong and we reduced the exams burden. I am proud of that.
Coursework grades were often inflated, and many conscientious teachers knew the open secret that other less scrupulous teachers ‘helped’ their students a bit too much. The system was devalued and we scrapped it.
Local Authorities would make excuses about why children who attended sink schools in deprived areas were achieving poor results. We freed schools to appoint no-nonsense headteachers who did not accept ‘low socio-economic background’ as a reason for failure. Now you find some impressive schools with tough headteachers in some of our most disadvantaged communities, with high expectations for every single child, and these children are rising to meet that challenge and finding opportunities to succeed.
We slimmed down the National Curriculum and allowed schools to surpass it, encouraging a renaissance in subject communities like my own of history. Finally, we reformed GCSE exams to ensure rigour and restore faith in students’ hard won qualifications.
More recently, we have focused on teacher workload. Senior leaders in schools have the power to create a culture where staff morale is high and teachers leave at the end of the day looking forward to the next one. But they can also create a school of drudgery through triple marking (where teachers and students engage in a dialogue in writing to each other about a piece of work) which has driven so many great teachers out of the profession.
Ofsted and the Department have said that schools should not be doing it, but this loathsome and counterproductive practice continues.
Which brings me to our leadership contenders. Both have highlighted education. Johnson has noted the “yawning funding gap” between pupils in London and the rest of the country, and wants to spend £5,000 more per pupil in outer-London secondary schools.
Whilst true, however, the gap between pupil spending in Essex and my own school in South Cambridgeshire is also “yawning”. Fair funding of schools is long overdue since it varies from county to county. In fact, the real-term cut in school funding is overshadowing all of our impressive and popular achievements since 2010. If we are not careful, school funding will haunt us into the next election. It must be addressed urgently.
Hunt said he would deploy mental health support teams in schools and colleges. He rightly recognises that schools are increasingly having to support the poor mental health of so many students. Teachers like me are experts at spotting a decline in the mental well-being of a young person. It is not spotting mental health concerns that is at issue; again, it is funding and support for those young people.
He also says we should unite young and old. I agree. So Conservatives should stop talking into an echo chamber and start engaging with young people like those I teach in South Cambridgeshire. They are engaged and passionate but drifting towards Corbyn’s socialist dystopia because they do not remembers the Seventies and Eighties. Hunt and Johnson need to make the case for education as a vehicle for social justice and mobility.
There is more to do. Here are three things our next Prime Minister could say about education to win the support of a supposed left-wing profession.
Let’s start with Ofsted. Nicky Morgan’s final act in the DfE was to appoint the impressive Amanda Spielman as Chief Inspector. Spielman has said that the curriculum taught in schools will now be examined. This is long overdue. In my career, I have been through five Ofsted inspections and at no point was I asked why I taught what I taught, or how this lesson fitted into the term or prepared pupils for GCSE.
I would like to go further. I would suggest that Ofsted should not observe a single teacher teach; not one. Unless, that is, the lead inspector has reason to doubt the judgement of the school’s leadership. For example, Ofsted should look at behaviour, safeguarding, and the views of parents, and compare these with what senior school leaders have claimed. If the claims are supported then Ofsted should also trust the leaders’ judgements about lessons and teaching and learning.
What is the point of inspectors observing short bursts of 30 lessons if there is no reason to do so? In any case, I do not want a former science-teacher-turned-inspector observing my history lesson; after all, I am not qualified to know what good science teaching looks like.
This is particularly pressing because ten years ago, when a school was judged to be outstanding, it was told that it did not need to be inspected again. So many ‘outstanding’ schools have been coasting for too long and may no longer qualify as truly outstanding schools. If inspectors do not have to inspect lessons, then they will have the capacity to re-inspect these outstanding schools.
We must hold our nerve on the English Baccalaureate (or E-Bacc). More students are taking rigorous exams in English, maths, science, a language, and either history or geography. The E- Bacc has rescued history in many schools where some students had been previously steered away from it because of its perceived difficulty. But music and art are now suffering due to their exclusion. If these subjects’ exams are now as rigorous as history’s, then they should be included in the qualification.
My final suggestion is that the university degree fees and teaching training fees should be waived for teachers who agree to give eight years to the state sector. The Armed Forces will fund your university placement if you agree to a return of service; teaching should be the same.
I stress, however, the state sector. If the taxpayer trains you then you should teach in a school that is funded by the taxpayer. If you choose to train and then get a job in an elite public school – and I have no problem with that – then Mr and Mrs Taxpayer from South Cambridgeshire should not fund your fees. You or your school or should pay them back.
Above everything else is school funding. Conservative councils rightly have a reputation for prudence and wise spending. Many headteachers in South Cambridgeshire are small ‘c’ conservatives and extremely careful with their budgets. Whichever foreign secretary enters Number 10, school funding must increase. No ifs, no buts.
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