13 April 2021

The Tories must revive their education revolution – and take on the unions

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It seems a forlorn hope, in the face of Covid-19 and the intensifying constitutional battles over Scotland and Northern Ireland, that education could find its way back at the top of the Government’s agenda any time soon.

But news of teachers resigning from the National Education Union after it endorsed a ‘ban on expulsions’ is a timely reminder of why it should.

The idea of forbidding schools from excluding (under-16s don’t get ‘expelled’) extremely disruptive pupils is so obviously wrong-headed that of course the NEU had to start rowing back from it immediately. For example, teachers immediately started defecting to other unions because it would not back them up in the event they were “assaulted by a pupil”. So, of course, exclusions on those grounds are all right. Likewise, with the spotlight on sexual assault in schools, exclusions on that basis get a pass.

Both exceptions are well-justified. But it is concerning that the NEU’s policy elevates the supposed needs of extremely disruptive pupils over those of the peers whose education they disrupt.

Scepticism towards exclusion is not confined to the left. Rob Halfon, as Chair of the Education Select Committee, has also criticised schools for being allegedly too quick to resort to it, and the Government for failing to provide enough specialist support for excluded pupils.

But there seems to be little arguing with Tom Bennett, a teacher and lead behaviour adviser at the Department for Education, when he wrote in 2018:

“The select committee report is called Forgotten Children, but the children it does end up forgetting are the vast majority of students who don’t tell teachers to go to hell, who don’t commit routine acts of violence against others, persistently bully terrified peers, or wilfully and continually disrupt the learning of others. To ignore the needs of all children and staff in schools is extraordinarily shortsighted, and almost callous by default.”

Opposition to exclusions, like opposition to school uniforms, is one of those superficially compassionate and progressive policies whose real outcome is anything but. It also stands with the unions’ ferocious resistance to re-opening schools in a discreditable tradition of not appearing to put the best interests of pupils first.

As I noted last year, that battle should have made it very clear to ministers why it is so important to put some life back into the incomplete Conservative education revolution. It was the major academy chains at the forefront of efforts to get young people back into the classroom – a structural change driven forward in government delivering visible results.

Likewise, the NEU vote is a reminder that the progressive education establishment (what Michael Gove called ‘the Blob’) has not gone away. We saw this too in the recent episode at Pimlico Academy, where teachers threatened industrial action to undermine a headteacher who was trying to impose such heresies as the Union Flag, British history, and a strict school uniform policy on unwilling pupils.

Such progress as has been made in education since 2010 can’t be taken for granted. The best way to safeguard it against those who would roll it back is to keep pushing ahead. Yet the drive has gone out of the Tory education portfolio more or less since Gove left it.

There are few areas of policy more important than education. On an individual level, good schools transform lives, whilst on the collective level they can (or should) play a significant role in turning young people into citizens. What sort of citizen schools produce should be a matter of deep concern in Whitehall.

It is unfortunate, although perhaps understandable given the context of the election, that the 2019 manifesto said next to nothing about schools. Less forgivable is the calamitous handling of exams last year – especially the capitulation to predicted grades, which risks undermining years of Government efforts to make assessment more rigorous.

And if there is to be a switch at the Department for Education in an upcoming reshuffle, Boris Johnson has the space to be bold. He has a majority of 80, several years until the next election, and years of good work to build on.

So instead of moving Matt Hancock to Education to create space for Gove at Health, as press reports suggest, why not send the man behind the Conservative education agenda back to finish the job? The NEU would know exactly what hit them.

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Henry Hill is News Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.