I’m working on the basis that a Labour victory would rival that of Charlton vs. Huddersfield in 1957 (down 5-1 with less than 30 minutes left and only ten men on the pitch but somehow rallied to win 7-6). The Conservative manifesto was published this week and in just over two weeks it’s likely to be the roadmap for the next five years. It’s a bit Macbeth Act 5 Scene 5- ‘full of sound and fury signifying nothing’- as manifestos often are, but six ideas stand out.
1. The EBacc:
Despite 86% of Headteachers declaring their opposition to the 90% Ebacc, the Conservatives remain committed. The amended pledge is for 75% uptake by 2022 and 90% by 2025. First, this will require a dramatic increase in the numbers of people training to become teachers of Modern Foreign Languages. And, because curriculum time is finite, it will lead to redundancies in other subject areas- most likely in the Arts and Design and Technology. A possible solution is reducing the amount of curriculum time each subject receives but this is at odds with the increased demands of the new GCSEs. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in 100% uptake for those who wish to take these subjects but I don’t believe in prescription. This has nothing to do with lowering expectations for the less able. Make all subjects equally challenging (no more ECDL-like subjects) and let schools, pupils and parents choose.
2. A commitment to free schools, faith Schools and grammar schools:
The rationale here is simple: these schools achieve higher results so, if the government creates more of them, more children will succeed. Right? Well, not really. For a moment, let’s entertain the idea that these schools consistently achieve better results because of their ethos and not because there is any kind of selection in place. Even if this was true, in our zero-sum system of examinations, GCSE results will not continue to rise. the commitment for English and mathematics GCSEs this summer is 70% of pupils to achieve a grade of 4+ in each subject; in English, approximately 16% will receive a 7+ grade and 20% of pupils will do the same in mathematics. Unless the government is willing to embrace grade inflation (which was more to do with teachers and pupils working much harder than they did when I took my O’ levels in 1987 than some kind of dumbing down of standards), then increasing the number of grammar schools is not going to help ,assuming that it would in the first place. And it definitely won’t help Progress 8 scores!
3. A commitment to an academic, knowledge-rich curriculum:
The Conservatives are committed to a knowledge-rich curriculum and most teachers I know are in agreement that this is a good thing. They’re less happy about the specifications being published in July (a publishing trend I remember well from the introduction of the Literacy Strategy during the last fortnight of the summer term in 2000) and the lack of assessment materials, but good teachers find a way and twitter is encouraging teachers to share high-quality resources at a level never before experienced by the profession. In English, sites such as @Team_English1 or leading practitioners @MrBruffEnglish and @_Stacey_English, are creating and sharing resources far superior to those which schools used to pay for. There is an intriguing commitment by the Conservatives to develop a curriculum fund to encourage the development of high-quality resources, which teachers will be able to use, but time will tell if this is manifesto fluff or a genuine attempt to reduce teacher workload. My money’s on the fluff!
4. Key Stage 3 SATs?
This is worrying- a reference to increasing accountability at KS3 implies a return to testing in Year 9. Things have moved on since 2008, when the SATs were abolished to a nationwide cheer from teachers, pupils and parents. The introduction of more challenging GCSEs will, by necessity, encourage schools to raise standards in KS3 curricula which probably needed a shot across the bows. KS3 SATs are not the answer. Do we really want a return to tests which have little correlation to GCSEs. Do we really want a return to poorly-marked assessments and endless appeals? As a former Head of English, my department once achieved the highest-ever GCSE grades and lowest-ever SATs results in the same year. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry (actually, I did- I laughed).
5. A commitment to increasing the numbers of pupils who take technical subjects:
Again, this is a laudable aim and one with which I think most educators would agree. I think more pupils should take these subjects- taught well, they combine analytical, practical and creative skills. The only problem is that fewer pupils will be sitting GCSEs in Design and Technology so where is the uptake going to come from? Is the thinking that pupils will want to take these subjects after years of being forced down a narrow curriculum? These new qualifications will be challenging- the T levels will have an increased teaching time and a 3 month work placement- but I’m not sure the demand will be there. And, if it is, then surely the sensible course of action would be to encourage more pupils to take Design and Technology subjects at Key Stage 4. The logical policy would be to change the EBacc: English; mathematics and any 3 subjects from an increased selection to include science, MFL, Arts and D&T subjects. That would promote a broad curriculum whilst keeping the focus on literacy and numeracy.
6. Developing lifelong learning in digital skills:
Er, isn’t this Crucial Skills 2? Please tell me we’re not going back there . . .