The continuing growth in pupil numbers is causing alarm bells to ring in schools across the country. Head teachers say that they are struggling to cope and claim they need more funding. Ahead of the Tory Party conference, in another overt act of educational politicisation, 4,000 have written to parents calling on their support. Similar letters were sent out before the March Budget and during June’s general election campaign.
‘Help us hammer the Tories, or your kids will pay the price’ might be seen as the ‘gun to the head’ message. Too much coercion, however, is unlikely to be needed. TES (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) has reported that in mock polls held in schools around the country before the last general election, 75 per cent of pupils voted for Jeremy Corbyn. The educational establishment, the ‘Blob’, has already won the battle with the Conservatives for hearts and minds in schools.
According to TES, only 8 per cent of teachers now vote Tory while 68 per cent back Labour. Pupils’ understanding of the world is shaped significantly by what they learn in school. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that it has swung behind Jeremy and in favour of more spending. And indoctrinated children are the perfect conduits for influencing parental opinion. Not that most mums and dads have much doubt that spending more money on schools must be a good thing. It all sounds so logical and so much like common sense. But is it true?
The fact is, according to the OECD, that our per-pupil spending is above average amongst developed countries. We spend more per head than several countries in the Asia-Pacific and yet, by the age of 15, our children are up to three years behind in terms of attainment. We even trail a long way behind Vietnam although we out-spend that country per pupil by around seven times. Similarly, in Europe, Estonian and Polish children have much less spent on them but out-perform UK pupils by some distance.
Something is certainly going wrong with our schools but the protesting heads are deluded if they believe it is all due to lack of funding. If we could improve our educational performance by spending more money, we would not have the educational attainment crisis we face today. How extraordinary it is that today’s school-leavers have had nine times more spent on them than their grandparents and, yet, according to the OECD, do less well on basic skills.
Of course, we would all like our children to be taught in the smaller classes that private schools can provide and, of course, it can help. But how many parents would choose a small class over an outstanding teacher? Teaching quality matters far, far more than class size. It is high-quality teaching that explains why pupils in the Asian superstar education system perform so much better than ours.
Ironically, if we were to increase class sizes in the UK to 35-40, still smaller than many in the Asia-Pacific, it would force teachers to drop the child-centred group work that currently holds back their pupils. Such failed teaching methodology would not be practical. Instead, it would force them to rely more on teacher-led, ‘whole-class’ lessons. This was the norm 50 or 60 years ago, as it is today in most of the best-performing education systems.
Slightly larger classes would not only bring better teaching methods, they would free money from school budgets. Fewer teachers would be needed and they could be given a sizeable pay increase. This would create a ‘virtuous cycle’ by encouraging into the profession more of the best and most talented graduates. Attainment and pupil behaviour would improve through high-quality teachers using more effective ‘whole class’ teaching methods. A reduction in teacher and pupil stress levels would be a further benefit as standards of attainment rise. Nothing succeeds like success!
It is time for head teachers to stop scaremongering over money. Our school system is failing too many children. Heads should not be demanding more money to sustain it. They should be working to change the system to one that costs less but produces a lot more for everyone – pupils, teachers, parents. For any government this should be obvious, but I fear such understanding is well beyond the current administration.