Royal Grammar School

Newcastle

Election, election, election

Election, election, election

A version of this piece might appear on the Times Educational Supplement’s website some time before the election. Still, we all ought to be focusing on that great event, even if it drives us mad(!), so I make no apology!

The longer I work in schools, the more frequently I misquote Oscar Wilde’s famous aphorism about being talked about (or not). There is only one thing worse in the world than politicians not being interested in education: and that is politicians being interested in it, (let alone discovering they have a passion for it).

How well I remember Tony Blair proclaiming in 1997 that he had three priorities: education, education, education. With a rare touch of humour, David Cameron countered in 2010 that his priorities were the same, but not in that order.

Both elections saw hopes for education raised and dashed. Following Blair’s victory successive Secretaries of State for Education (however many of them were there?), far from clipping the wings of the inspectorate, strengthened it and harassed and harried schools: they gave rise to one initiative after another, arbitrarily imposed; Ed Balls proved to be uninterested in education at all, caring much more about children so that Every Child Mattered, while education maybe mattered less; and Lord Adonis, a visionary in many respects, launched Academies.

Post-2010, the Tories’ Lib-Dem coalition partners proved toothless in any attempt to curb the exuberance of Michael Gove who was on a very personal mission. To be sure, the Academies programme continued (I haven’t a problem with that): free schools came along, too. But the bullying of schools and teachers continued, driven by Gove’s messianic approach that eclipsed the zeal of all previous education secretaries and, in the end, alienated so many people that David Cameron identified him as a liability rather than a vote-winner and moved him out.

And now, here we are again. Another five years, another election. Education is not the political football in this election that it has been in the last couple: I guess we should be grateful for that. But still it rears its head. 

Both Labour and Conservatives claim to be protecting the funding of schools, using two different formulas, both ambivalently worded and open to interpretation (that’s a posh way of saying they leave space for reneging on promises when money gets tight). There’s no clarity from Labour on exam reform; no U-turns on that topic from the Tories; and no party going near a sensible or fair funding formula for maintained schools.

Still, if you want some clarity, look no further than the Greens and UKIP. The Greens will dismantle all the remaining grammar schools and absorb them into a totally comprehensive system: they’ll pull the independents in, too, or close them. By contrast, UKIP will create selective grammar schools wherever anyone wants them. There’s a clear choice, then: only neither of those parties will end up running the country (at least, I hope not!).

Where does the electoral murk leave children, and those who try to educate them despite the interference of our political masters? It’s hard to say. Last week saw an elephant in the room, a pachyderm of such hugeness that the failure of any party to recognise it leaves me breathless. 

Primary school places were announced: some families will be happy, while many won’t. More to the point, it’s clear that the next few years will see a quarter of a million additional children needing primary school places, and there appears no strategy in place to deal with it. Oh, and it’s clear we won’t have enough teachers in any case as recruitment is in meltdown.

Call me old-fashioned, but I thought we had governments (local or national) to sort such things out: to look ahead, see challenges approaching, plan the solutions and then implement them. We pay our taxes, our council tax and everything else, and should be able to rely on government to do something about it, to expand schools or open new ones. But they don’t.

They talk grand schemes. They talk about opportunity for everyone. And they’re very hot on ensuring working people are rewarded for their hard work – while somehow we also pay off the deficit (by the way, I think we should pay it off, and fast). But is anyone going to do anything about that simple, rather tedious and tiresome problem, the mere fact that some parents can’t find schools for their children? I await enlightenment.

Politicians in charge of education? We’re plagued by personal missions, U-turns, dogmas and sheer ignorance: and central government remains ineffectual. 

I’m sorry to go on about this (well, not that sorry!): but it’s at times like this in particular that I breathe a deep sigh of relief and thank heaven for our independence at the RGS. 

I started by saying that education is not in this election the political football that it often becomes. That’s the relief to which I refer. Nonetheless politicians will still interfere, use education as their own instrument to instigate their personal (and it is so often personal) social agenda. As a result, far too often everyone suffers – but particularly this country’s children.

At the RGS, in independent schools as a whole, we can stand aside to at least some extent. What characterises the RGS is that relentless (I use the word advisedly) focus on quality, on everything being the best it can possibly, on high expectations and on high but not unrealistic aspirations. Whatever storms or calms a new government may bring, that constant focus is the piece of wreckage (better than that, I hope!), to which we cling – with quite a measure of success.

If we could prevent the demagogues, the fanatics and/or the lunatic fringe from dictating education policy we just might afford some protection to schools and colleges nationally, to the education of the young, to the very future of our country.  In the meantime, at the RGS our independence is that protection.

Bernard Trafford
Headmaster