Labour’s promise to commit over six times as much extra cash to education as the Tories may not have won the election for Jeremy Corbyn but it certainly helped to swing the beneficiaries of our education system in his direction. And who could blame them?
It was never going to be easy to get young people and their families to vote for what they perceived would be a hard time under the Tories. And I am not referring only to school funding and university tuition fees. Why, the Tory Manifesto even stated: “We will expect every 11-year old to know their times tables off by heart.” Yes, seriously, this is what Conservative ‘toughies’ mean by ‘raising the bar’.
Howls of laughter around the globe, of course, from our economic competitors! The British state education system is a continuing source of amusement and amazement, as the South Korean 15-year-olds discovered when the BBC gave them a GCSE maths paper to do. They completed it in around 20 minutes since, as they observed, it is at the level of what they learnt in primary school. It so happens that in South Korea class sizes are larger than in the UK and less is spent on education both per head and in terms of percentage of GDP.
The contrast in pupil attainment is even starker when we compare the UK with developing economies such as Vietnam. The OECD has pointed out that it is, also, apparent in the performance of school leavers today compared to their grandparents. Amongst developed countries, Britain is alone in witnessing a decline in basic employment skills.
In my view this is a ‘catastrophe’ and, a few days before the general election, the pro-Labour Daily Mirror quoted me, using that very word, in order to endorse Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘spend, spend’ solution. So hopeless is the Conservative Party at articulating a coherent argument in defence of limiting educational spending that Jeremy had a ‘free run’ on education.
So, what should the Tories have been saying? For a start, they needed to point out much more forcefully that extra spending will involve extra debt. This debt will be an ever-growing burden passed on to future generations. Cancelling tuition fees, for example, means that the children and the grandchildren and the great grandchildren of today’s students will have to pick up the tab.
Young people, perhaps even more than the older generation, are inclined towards fairness. Most will see the injustice of mortgaging the future of those yet to be born. They see it, after all, in the support they give to green issues. So-called ‘austerity’, they need to be persuaded, is actually about spending only what we can afford to spend – good housekeeping – in order to protect the life chances of future generations.
As for spending more and more money on schools, there needs to be an explanation to parents that, as the OECD has pointed out, simply spending money to create smaller class sizes does not raise standards of attainment. It is teaching quality that matters most.
Slightly larger classes in the UK could, indeed, have some beneficial effects. They would force teachers to use the much more effective ‘whole class’ teaching methodologies that have underpinned the success of school systems with their larger classes in much of the Asia-Pacific.
They should be accompanied by a return to the use of cost-effective and educationally-effective textbooks and away from our over-reliance on expensive digital technology. A survey for Cambridge Assessment a few years ago reported that only 4 per cent of teachers in England use a science textbook! In high-flying Singapore it was 68 per cent and in Finland it was as high as 94 per cent.
Ineffective child-centred group work to which UK schools are so addicted is dependent on smaller classes. In addition, it has to be supported by what has become an army of 24,000 classroom assistants at an annual cost of £4 billion a year in England – around 10 per cent of the total schools’ budget.
A move back to whole class teaching – more pupils per class and fewer classroom assistants – would not only bring with it considerable financial savings, it would be less stressful for teachers and produce better results. By freeing up pressure on the budget it would, also, allow us to pay teachers more. This, in turn, would encourage more of the best and most capable graduates to join the profession and to stay in it.
On the grounds of our responsibility to future generations and on the grounds of teaching quality and attainment the case for budget responsibility in educational spending is a very strong one. It is about time the Tories started to make it.