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Tory policy on education focuses on FE

Tom Middlehurst, SSAT’s head of policy and public affairs, analyses the fundamental impact of education secretary Gavin Williamson’s speech to the Conservative party conference

On Monday, the education secretary took his turn on the stage of the Tory Party conference in Manchester. He started by listing the various policies proposed a week before by Labour, including scrapping SATs tests, returning schools to local authority control and abolishing Ofsted, and all LAs to run their own inspections of their own schools. He concluded that, if implemented, these policies would be a disaster.

His own short speech concentrated on a reform to further education, including an extra £120m for FE and skills (which will fund 20 new institutes for technology across the country), new 16-19 maths schools and new technical education routes which, he promised, will overtake Germany by 2029.

The aims of this policy are admirable. Successive governments of all colours have failed to get technical and vocational education right. The T-levels, so heavily championed by former minister Damian Hinds, were doomed to failure due to rushed implementation and lack of buy-in from employers.

The question is how to make technical education a worthwhile route for any young person.

I have sat in countless roundtable discussions with experts on the subject, headteachers and academics. Everyone always agrees that we need valuable technical qualifications in their own right – which recognise the intrinsic difference between technical and academic education. However, when pushed, almost all of these university-educated leaders admit that they would rather their own child attend a prestigious university than get on a prestigious apprenticeship course. Until we have headteachers aspiring for their own children to go for technical rather than academic routes, it will always be a losing battle.

This is the challenge that Williamson and the DfE have on their hands. In a truly equitable system, your educational outcomes shouldn’t be dictated by your upbringing or family context. When Williamson talks about ‘the other 50%’, we have to make sure that’s not the most disadvantaged 50%. England’s technical offer must appeal to high-achieving, elite students as well as students who perform less well in standardised exams.

Williamson was decidedly quiet about schools policy. Perhaps this is because he didn’t want too much scrutiny of school funding. He reiterated the (true) claim that the Tories propose to invest £14bn in education over the next three years. However, this £14bn does not reverse the real-term cuts that schools have seen since 2015.

In fact, 80% of schools will continue to have less money per pupil, in real terms, in 2020 than in 2015. And around a third will have to make additional cuts next year because the minimum 1.8% pay rise is way below predicted rising costs.

It’s all well and good to champion further education; but unless there is sufficient funding for early years, primary, secondary, and sixth form schools and colleges, we won’t have a system that allows every young person to flourish, as the education secretary envisages.

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