It’s the economy, stupid!

Anyone who reads the newspapers will be familiar with claims that Michael Gove is pursuing an ideological agenda, reforming the education system in order to promote a traditional model of schooling, apparently inspired by his reading of Dickens’ Hard Times at Oxford.  As I see it, what drives Gove is not so much ideology as economics, at least economics combined with his own lust for power.  

Think about it, in 2010 Gove joins a cabinet tasked with making savage cuts.  Education, along with Health, is ring-fenced, but (given the size of the National Debt and the small impression that even 40% cuts in the smaller departments could make on its rate of increase) he must prepare to make big savings after 2015 when, it is envisaged, the Tories will be returned to “finish the job” without the hindrance of being in Coalition.  

Naturally, it wouldn’t do to spend 5 years discussing where the axe will fall.  Teachers, like any other group, are likely to strike and rebel if told in no uncertain terms that schools will face cuts in real terms of around 25% by 2020, cuts which will feel much bigger once the effects of inflation and rising on-costs are factored in.  Parents wouldn’t like it much either!  Hence, Gove did and does what any good politician would do when faced with feeding bitter medicine to the electorate; he massaged and obscured the truth.  

Gove’s “vision” for education not-so-very-coincidentally promises to deliver significant savings through its implementation after 2015.  

Think about it!  

The 1944 education act was forged in times of war for an age of national debt.  It provided universal education to 15 but did so at the lowest possible cost – especially once plans for investment in technical education were shelved.  

  • The focus then as now was on the core – Maths and English.  
  • Assessments then were all standardized and terminal, as they will soon be again, thus avoiding the need for teachers to get too involved on a day-to-day basis and providing employers and universities with a simple categorization of school-leavers, who would be basically literate, basically numerate, accustomed to boredom and ready to think that being trained to work as a typist was an exciting opportunity.  
  • There was no thought of providing young people with choices; schools did not teach ICT, Spanish or Psychology.  Offering only a few subjects enabled schools to maximize class sizes and focus resources, making it possible to teach 16-19 year olds for not much more than it cost to teach 11-14 year olds.  

Gove’s reformed education system has also been forged for an age of national debt.  It will provide universal education to 18, but must
do so at the lowest possible cost.  

  • The focus will be on the core – Maths, English and immediately related “facilitating” subjects, all of which can deliver recognized and useful grades for a minimal investment of resources.  
  • The number of optional subjects at 14+ and 16+ will be reduced, initially so that smaller schools can deliver on the new per-pupil not per-course funding structure and then because there is no need for larger providers to offer the extent of choice in order to recruit or retain.
  • The Classics will disappear – but that will only be the start.  In order to make the figures work in a state sixth form of around 250 the number of A Level classes needs to be reduced to max. 20, which means reducing the number of subjects from maybe 28 to maybe 15.  Whereas the typical sixth form might have offered flexible combinations of AS and A2 courses in Maths, Further Maths, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, English Literature, French, History, Geography, Economics, Theatre Studies, Art, Design Technology and Music as well as ICT, Psychology, Sports Science, English Language, Spanish, German, Religious Studies, Business Studies, Performing Arts, Music Technology, Latin and Classical Studies, soon they will only be able to offer linear and inflexible courses in Maths, Further Maths, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, English Literature, French, History, Geography, Economics, Theatre Studies, Art, Design Technology and Music.  
  • Schools might well try to reduce costs further by replacing “expensive” subjects with those which are less resource-hungry. Further Maths, the Sciences, Languages, Theatre-Studies Art, DT & Music require a lot of specialist equipment and teachers.  To his credit, Gove has tried to head off the exodus from Further Maths, the Sciences and Languages by making higher funding contingent on students taking only “facilitating subjects”, as the ever-helpful Russell Group defined them, but this will do nothing to save minority languages or the Arts, let alone popular subjects like RS, Philosophy, Psychology, Business Studies, Sports Science etc.
  • Class sizes, particularly at 16+ will rise  and there will be pressure on teachers to follow a “script” of approved lesson-plans and activities, increasingly ones which are web-based.  This will reduce variations between student learning experiences and outcomes and will make it less and less important that teachers are highly skilled professionals…  
  • Assessments, of course, will be standardized and terminal.  Given no ongoing assessment, teachers will not need to be as skilled or as highly paid as they have been up to now.  Introducing performance-related pay-scales at the same time as class-sizes will rise and choice between courses and assessments and coursework will go ties teachers’ hands behind their back and ensures that the majority will not progress to the higher points.  
  • Further, perhaps reducing the number of exam-boards and specifications contributing to school performance-tables will give the DfE more control over them?  Tweaking the data will enable Gove, or his successor, to tell a story of raising standards to mask any concerns young people, their parents or teachers might have about the curriculum becoming narrower, less flexible or enjoyable etc.

All of this delivers significant savings to schools and the DfE when salaries represent at least half of any school’s budget and when things like Art equipment take up sizable chunks of what is left.  

When I was a Deputy Headteacher I learned that there are only a few ways of reducing costs in teaching.  

1)  Increase class sizes – which usually means EITHER expanding OR reducing choice at 14+

2) Reducing salaries – EITHER make some teachers redundant OR introduce new t&cs and pay-scales to constrain or reduce costs OR replace experienced, qualified staff with inexperienced or unqualified staff. 

3) Reduce overheads – in the absence of switching power suppliers, this means cutting all equipment purchases and reducing emphasis on hungry subjects like Art, Chemistry or Music Technology.  

In this context it seems obvious that Gove’s reforms are less ideological and more economical!  I just wish that they were ideological, because that would offer the hope that a change in the leadership of the DfE would result in a change in direction.  As it is, I fear that we have to knuckle down and accept that the country can no longer afford a 1st class education system and that the coming generations’ opportunities will be sacrificed in order to protect the pensions and NHS care of the only people who can be guaranteed to vote in this country – pensioners!

24th October

Of course, silly me.  I missed out the most obvious way of saving money of all.  Amalgamate 2-3 sixth forms in a local area, increasing student numbers from c.250-300 to c.800-1000.  This makes it possible to run all the courses while still having classes of 30; meeting or even undercutting the £4000 per pupil.  

This option certainly hasn’t been missed by the government I see.  This morning The Times reports that

Too many secondary schools want to open sixth forms as a “badge of honour” and will deliver weaker teaching and poorer A-level results than large colleges, a senior Conservative MP said yesterday. Graham Stuart, chairman of the Commons Education Committee, urged ministers to consider stopping some schools from creating sixth forms, saying that some schools would encourage teenagers to stay and study A levels against their own interests….”  

Just call me psychic but I predict…

1)  A push to get schools and academies to merge their sixth forms or abandon them in favour of local FE colleges.

2)  The introduction of a “shake-up” in teacher training.  The re-introduction of bursaries for some subjects but this made contingent on not making a fuss about most PGCEs qualifying teachers only in 11-16 work OR in 16-18 work.  Once this is done, entry requirements for the 11-16 PGCEs will be gradually eroded and these teachers’ mandate will broaden, meaning that newly 11-16 schools get “flexibility” and can assign teachers across several subjects and, potentially in time, pay them less as well (once reforms rewarding highly qualified teachers are brought in).  Teachers, especially at 11-16, will be under increasing pressure to stick to the “script”, which will be written for them by Pearson or some other educational company.  

3)  The forced narrowing of the curriculum at sixth forms which do not amalgamate, meaning that students in rural areas have far fewer opportunities than students in urban areas.  This will give new energy to Gove’s idea to boost boarding state schools and this will mean an erosion of the principle that parents should not be asked to pay “top up” fees.  In time, this will lead to non-boarding pupils in some schools paying fees and then it will become a generally accepted principle…  

4)  In time, I think it likely that the boundaries between FE colleges and Universities will blur, with local 3rd tier universities under financial pressure to provide courses for 16-18 or even 14-18 year olds in order to make ends meet.  This might squeeze FE colleges which do not form alliances with local HE providers early-on.  Having senior students provided for in the University sector would be a godsend for the DfE as it will mean that they will gradually be able to rid themselves of responsibility for public exams, modelling things on the US AP/ College Board system maybe.  

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