Tories don’t understand children, parents or ‘meritocracy’

This week the secretary of state for education’s conference speech made clear that the Tories don’t understand children, they don’t understand parents, and they don’t have the policies necessary to create the ‘meritocracy’ that they speak of.

First, the very fact that early years education did not even merit a mention by Justine Greening was shocking. And the Tories’ lack of understanding of how children develop was highlighted by their new policy of creating six ‘opportunity areas’ across the United Kingdom to get schoolchildren from underprivileged backgrounds interacting with businesses to help them aspire to respectable careers. It does not take a huge amount of research across the academic and professional materials available to find out that there is a broad consensus that early years experiences largely determine educational outcomes.

The truth is that Labour initiatives, such as Sure Start centres, and free childcare to allow parents to go back to work, are the most powerful vehicles for providing children with the best chance of getting the most out of their education, as Angela Rayner – celebrating Labour’s past in a way we have not seen in years – powerfully put to conference in Liverpool last week. At the age of 16, with a child, Sure Start gave her a lifeline, as it has many others. And by closing over 800 Sure Start centres over the six years the Tories have been in government, they are accelerating the death of social mobility. And it will only get worse if Theresa May gets her way with new grammar schools.

As Rayner also pointed out, the 11+ exam labels 80 per cent of children as failures at the age of 11, and the chiefs of Ofsted, the National Association of headteachers and the Institute for Fiscal Studies are all united in the view that selection entrenches division and increases inequality. And this is where the Tories show that they fail to understand parents. Working families don’t want a system where their child is denied a high-quality education because they could not afford private tutoring for them to pass the 11+. Ordinary people do not want their children or anybody else’s written off at the age of 11. Building new grammar schools will disproportionately benefit the wealthy, as they always have done, and will prevent money being spent on improving comprehensive education.

Parents also worry about getting their child into school in the first place. But none of the criticisms aimed at free schools were answered in Greening’s speech. There are to be 500 new free schools, we learned. This is supposedly going to help alleviate overcrowding in classrooms, a universally acknowledged issue facing educators. But accountability in education is hugely important, and the argument has still not been made for why free schools should sit outside of local authority oversight altogether. I am sure the civil servants at Whitehall enjoy responding to parents regarding complaints about their child’s school with zero knowledge of the local issues involved.

Finally, ‘meritocracy’ seemed to be the buzzword of Greening’s speech. And selection based on an exam at the age of 11 is anathema to that concept. The minister seemed to be paying lip service to the prime minister’s position rather than enthusiastically advancing it herself, though. She did, however, state that grammar schools have a track record of reducing the attainment gap between those on free school meals and their classmates from wealthier families, as they improve at a much faster rate in the grammar school environment. What she conveniently omitted was that the average number of pupils on free school meals in grammar schools is just three per cent, compared to the national average of 20 per cent. Hardly, therefore, an argument for improving social mobility on a large scale.

Greening demonstrated yesterday that the Tories cannot deliver what is needed to address the challenges we face. But we have to be brave enough to make the arguments and convince the British public that a Labour government is the only one that they can trust with their child’s future.

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Dan Moloney tweets @DanMoloney

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