Chris McGovern: Wasted spending not lack of funds to blame for crisis in our classrooms

Will teachers get sufficient support in 2019?
Will teachers get sufficient support in 2019?
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THE past year turned out to be a rather dismal one for education. Teacher recruitment and retention was a bigger problem than ever. Schools were faced with a critical shortage of well-qualified graduates in several subjects. Morale within the profession was reported to be at an all-time low.

Confidence in the new, tougher A-Level and GCSE exams was eroded when it came to light that grade boundaries had to be manipulated in order to ensure that the pass rate of previous years was maintained or bettered. Around 20 per cent of the marks ensured a “good pass” in GCSE Mathematics. Where else in the world would this be regarded as a certificate of competence?

Meanwhile, issues of mental health, bullying and addiction to digital technology have become even greater concerns as we enter 2019. Furthermore, schools seem to be drowning in a flood of political correctness. Accusations of political indoctrination of children have also emerged.

At the 2018 Labour party conference, one teaching assistant delegate reminded the party that a “proper education” would mean that there would not be “any Tories because we’ll have brought our kids up properly”. The closing down of freedom of speech on university campuses only underlined the politicisation of education.

It was the funding crisis for schools, though, that mostly hit the headlines. Teachers marched in protest and even headteachers took a day off to besiege parliament and Downing Street. Many parents added their voice – appalled that they were being asked to chip in for everyday school essentials, ranging from toilet rolls to lined paper.

As we look ahead to 2019 it is, surely, important to recognise the inconvenient truth that successive governments have, on the whole, been generous spenders on education in recent decades. If money could solve our educational problems, we would have solved them by now.

Indeed, according to the authoritative Organisation for Economic and Co-operation and Development (OECD), the UK actually spends a higher percentage of its GDP on education than most other developed countries. Only Norway and New Zealand are ahead of us.

And spending around eight times as much per pupil as comparatively under-developed countries such as Vietnam has not made our children eight times better in terms educational attainment. Almost the opposite! We trail behind that country on the international tests for 15-year-olds in both maths and in science, and are only marginally ahead in literacy.

Not that our literacy standards are much to boast about. In 2016 the World Economic Forum Report noted: “England’s teenagers have the worst levels of literacy [amongst developed countries], coming in last place, with more than one in five having a low level of literacy. The country doesn’t fare much better in numeracy.”

The OECD has made it clear that beyond a basic level, educational attainment is not related to spending. Estonia spends not much more than half of what the UK spends per pupil but is a long, long way ahead of us in terms of attainment.

In 2019, our schools need to stop blaming their problems on a lack of funding and to explain where all the money is going. How many parents are aware, for example, that over half of staff in schools (53 per cent) are not actually teachers? Teaching methods have become more and more “child-centred” with the consequent demand for more and more classroom assistants and other ancillary staff.

This approach is the opposite of the teacher-led lessons that are the norm in the educational superstar states of Asia-Pacific. They were also the norm in the UK when today’s grandparents were at school. Is it any coincidence that we are the only country in the developed world where grandparents outperform their grandchildren in basic skills?

Some classroom assistants are necessary, of course. A minority of children certainly do need extra support. If, however, we were to reduce the number of assistants by around 50 per cent, it would require teachers to use those more effective whole class teacher-led lessons that are the norm in most high-performing education systems.

All of this creates a virtuous circle and school budgets ceased to be over-stretched. Indeed, some of the savings made could be channelled back into higher pay for good teachers. This, in turn, would aid recruitment and retention and, surely, boost morale.

It is not lack of spending that has caused so many problems for our school, it is wasted spending. According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, overall spending on education increased in real terms by an incredible nine times, 900 per cent, between 1953 and 2009 and yet, alone amongst developed countries, standards of pupil attainment fell. This is why 2019 must be the year when we face up to some inconvenient truths about our school system.

Chris McGovern is chairman of the Campaign for Real Education