Government's toxic approach to education is beyond satire

John Freeman
Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Every now and then, I think about writing a satirical column on education, but before I get round to it, the world has proved that my most extreme ideas are too tame.

Here is a roll call of stories from the last month or so: we have had tests accidentally published online before they are sat; Her Majesty’s chief inspector proposing two-year training for graduates to become head teachers; an empty PFI-funded school costing £4.5m a year; GCSEs in rock and pop vocals; academisation for all; a teacher recruitment crisis while foreign teachers are being repatriated because they don’t earn enough; superficial “inch-deep” maths qualifications taught by too few specialist teachers; bizarre rules on GCSE qualifications for childcare apprentices; an Education Secretary who issues guidance on “fronted adverbials” but doesn’t follow her own rules in her signed, official correspondence; and other deluded diktats on grammar and punctuation.

The toxic mix of ideology and political expediency, and, too often, incompetence, will, I fear, be with us for some time, with No. 10 and the Department for Education seemingly in a contest to show who can be tougher on an already battered education system.

The serious news for children and families, which has been masked by this hubbub, is about ever-increasing poverty, and particularly family poverty. Alongside poverty there is the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor. The Chancellor’s economic estimates can vary wildly between the autumn statement and the Budget. But let’s see what he has been saying.

Using official forecasts, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has calculated that the Budget changes will see the proportion of children in absolute poverty increase from 15 per cent to 18 per cent by the end of the parliament. This will be driven by a sharp rise in poverty among families with three or more children, as a direct consequence of tax and benefits changes. Relative child poverty, based on a comparison with average salaries, will increase from 18 to 26 per cent – over the same period. No surprises there – as the Children’s Society points out, with predicted levels of inflation, the four-year freeze means that families will lose up to 12 per cent in the value of benefits.

It is hardly a surprise that reliance on food banks is increasing. I have contradictory thoughts about food banks and similar charitable support – I don’t believe that anyone in this wealthy country should have to rely on charity. The existence of these charities lets the state off the hook. At the same time, I’m deeply grateful that volunteers are running food banks because there is no-one else to help.

It’s worse than just money as families in poverty, or near to poverty, are being hit hard in many ways beyond their income. The closure of children’s centres, libraries, and leisure centres – along with the increasingly selective behaviour of academies and lack of access to mental health services – all contribute to families being worse off in practice, with families in poverty affected disproportionately.

Housing policies also have a direct impact on families, with the end of long-term tenancies and the bedroom tax both leading to families having to move and the slow but inevitable breakdown of long-standing communities.

We already have desperately poor levels of child happiness in the UK. It’s difficult to see how increasing poverty, reduced services, and community instability can do anything other than make things worse.

To come back to where I started, the chaos of education: according to the Children’s World survey, UK children are towards the bottom of the league table for relationships with teachers, and dissatisfaction with their performance at school. Again this is not surprising, with teachers and head teachers driven increasingly by high-stakes tests and inspections, and bound by a rigid and arbitrary curriculum.

Will things be better for children in 2020? Not without a fundamental change in the national approach. Yet more externally imposed quick fixes just won’t work.

John Freeman CBE is a former director of children’s services and is now a freelance consultant   

Read his blog at

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