There was something almost sci-fi about the Conservative manifesto launch. A sea of cabinet ministers, packed into what looked like a cross between a cattle shed and a car park, dressed in various shades of blue, listening to the navy-clad prime minister intone on her favourite themes of this election. Strong and stable with everything, basically.
There was very little about education, from the podium at least, bar some references to a “Great Meritocracy” and the wholly uncontentious promise of a ‘good school place for every child’ (what politician could promise anything else?) More frustratingly, the manifesto itself yields not much more detail on the possible shape of our school system over the next five years.
On the two issues that have come to dominate education over the past year – funding and the threatened return of selection – we were offered intriguing concessions and a stubborn lack of clarity respectively. Funding first: clearly the government has been worried by the rising chorus of public concern concerning cuts to school budgets and the potentially devastating implications of the Fair Funding formula, particularly in areas like London where relatively generous levels of funding have achieved such good results over the past decade.
The Conservatives get round this by pledging to axe free school meals for primary school children (offering them Brexit – sorry, I mean breakfast – instead) and redistributing the rest to make up funding shortfalls.
On the face of it, it’s quite a canny move, suggesting both responsiveness to public concern and, perhaps, a recognition of disquiet on even the centre-left about the original Lib Dem policy of free school meals for some primary school children, and Labour’s plans to expand it by putting VAT on private school fees.
Even so, the funding pledge is not generous as it looks, given that the cut in free school meals accounts for only £650 million, and £3 billion is money already allocated for growth in pupil numbers.
On selection, we get remarkably little bar the return to some contentious guff about ordinary working families. “We will lift the ban on the establishment of selective schools, subject to conditions, such as allowing pupils to join at other ages as well as 11.”
That simple statement alone is, of course, important. If May wins on this manifesto, any possible rebellion by Tory MPs, and peers of all political stripes uneasy at the plans for more grammars, will be robbed of legitimacy. May can (finally) claim that all-important public mandate to reverse decades of cross-party policy.
Extraordinary, though, that we learn so little about the various “conditions” that will apply to these new schools, bar an uncontroversial promise to allow more children in a little later in adolescence. It is tempting to think that there is still a lot of behind-the-scenes wrangling going on as to whether the government should adopt the “old-school” model of grammars, favoured by Tory MP Graham Brady and co, or introduce some kind of quota system to ensure greater numbers of poor children can access selective schooling.
My guess is that the Brady faction has won out, judging by the manifesto claim that “official research shows that slightly more children from ordinary working-class families attend selective schools as a percentage of the school intake compared to non-selective schools.” In effect, this is the government claiming the existing 11-plus works well enough – even though, officially, the definition of an ordinary working family is still out for consultation.
Despite this inconvenient fact, the government happily deploys it here, and has said in the past that an ordinary working family is any family that brings in up to a “median income adjusted for housing costs and family size”. Such a vague claim needs urgent statistical unpacking. It should also not obscure the now well-proven facts about grammars and social class, most recently teased out by research showing grammars are great for the ‘properly rich’ and terrible for the ‘properly poor’.
Apart from that, there is a push ahead with the – again, highly contentious – Green Paper proposals to make independent schools and universities take on the running of some state schools.
Finally, a promised review of school admissions (oh, if only Labour could have pledged the same!)It’s not clear what the Tories have in mind here. Lotteries are sternly ruled out, despite being the only more-or-less-workable mechanism yet devised to deal with the more glaring imbalances of the postcode issue. As to what else May and co have in mind, we can only wait, warily, and see. But it’s bound to be strong and stable.
A version of this piece appeared in the TES on-line on May 18th 2017.