WHATEVER happened to “education, education, education”?
There is no question in my mind that it’s not just the obsession with Brexit, but the downgrading of education in the political pecking order that is the cause of its sidelining.
For thousands of families in the next two weeks, education will be very much at the top of their agenda. And why? Because GCSE and A-Level results will be coming through along with the often-forgotten vocational qualifications.
For young people and parents, this is not only a nerve-wracking time but also a seminal moment. In so many instances it can determine the route that they will take at least for the time being, and will shape the lives of those in the years ahead.
This year is more traumatic than usual. There were experiments with the new curriculum and qualifications last year, but this is the first full year when students will have been subjected to the ideological whims of the Government – those which were led primarily by Michael Gove, a former Education Secretary.
Don’t get me wrong, the intentions are extremely good and, as a former Education and Employment Secretary, I know all too well, that whatever you do, someone will grumble that it is disruptive, unnecessary and damaging. However, talk to any teacher of whatever persuasion and you’ll understand that things are in flux at every level of education.
Not only has the curriculum changed but alongside it there has been substantial change in the way in which youngsters are examined. No more continuous assessment for GCSE and A-Levels, just a final examination.
How to understand success or failure is also altered. Instead of the A* to C grade being seen as the benchmark for progressing into the academic side of post-16 education, this is now determined by a scale of one to nine. Five to nine is the equivalent or nearly the equivalent of the A* to C, nine being the highest. Nearly, because no one can tell me whether a four is actually accepted.
Don’t switch off. This is not the end of it! Because assessment has been set aside, the final exam is make or break. So, if like me (certainly at that age) you have a good memory, you can cram facts and simply regurgitate.
Not all youngsters have the aptitude or the exam technique to be able to do this. It doesn’t mean they’re thick. This isn’t the end of their options for the future.
They, and those who care about them, should take a leaf from those of us who managed to progress even though at 16 (in my case because they were not available) I had no qualifications at all. Lifelong learning means just what it says. Those maturing a little late, or who lost out because of other people’s decisions on radical changes to how we learn, what we learn and how we demonstrate it, should not be demoralised.
Underpinning all this, and demonstrating the downgrading in priority of our schooling system, whatever the rhetoric, is funding.
According to the highly respected and independent Institute for Fiscal Studies, there has been a real terms reduction of 10 per cent in the money available to schools between 2010 and 2016. They also estimate, and every respected body accepts, that we are also in the middle of an eight per cent cut through to 2020.
So, why is there a discrepancy in what the Government says, and what independent observers believe to be the case? In 2010, at the time of the Conservative and Lib Dem coalition, the then government pronounced that education was to be protected.
This was partially true. The eye-watering cuts that have hit local government and other services – outside the NHS – have not taken place until now in our school system.
But the money has drained away in all sorts of ways – remember, local government, with its diminished budget, still has responsibility for special educational needs, for the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service, for school transport and the like.
Schools have also had a substantial increase in pupil numbers which is undermining the amount of money per pupil that the school has to deal with. Hence, parents will know that schools across the country are pleading for them to raise money.
And, while it’s counted as education spending, recent statistics have demonstrated that it has cost significant sums to undertake the structural changes needed to establish the new wave of academies.
Unless the Government is prepared in the Budget this November to put substantial resources into the schooling system, and protect further education from additional cuts, things ‘can only get worse’.
This is because the cap on teachers’ pay has quite rightly been lifted by an average of 3.5 per cent, but the cost has to be met from somewhere and is not built into the present calculations.
To top it all, the Government has set up a review of funding of higher education. Unfortunately, they’ve made it clear that there will be no more money from the Exchequer so whatever happens, someone is going to lose.
Sorry that this is not the happiest of the columns I’ve ever written. I’m afraid this is a reflection of the times we live in. Whatever is said nationally, austerity has not gone away.
This August, what matters most to youngsters and their families will be the results. What matters to all of the rest of us is whether we invest in the future of those young people, their creativity and talent, and therefore in the economic success and competitiveness of our nation post-Brexit. There is much at stake for all of us.
David Blunkett held three senior Cabinet posts in Tony Blair’s government. He was Education and Employment Secretary from 1997-2001.