Conservative Minority Government: Where does all this leave our primary schools?

Recently, I’ve had a number of conversations with fellow primary school teachers (or ex-primary school teachers) who don’t follow British politics as a spectator sport in quite the way I do and who are feeling understandably confused. As expected, Theresa May is still the Prime Minister and Justine Greening remains Secretary of State for Education. On the face of it, we’re still where we were before, right? Well, not quite. If you’re someone with an interest in primary schools who’s feeling a bit confused about where the untidy General Election outcome leaves us, I thought I’d share some of my thoughts about what’s changed, what’s stayed the same and what we still don’t know.

1.) New grammar schools: dropped.

Theresa May no longer has the support she needs in the House of Commons to allow the opening of new grammar schools. Even among Conservative MPs, there was considerable unease about new grammars, with rumours flying around that Justine Greening herself was opposed to the policy.

I have all sorts of general objections to the idea of building new grammar schools. Most evidence seems to suggest they hinder rather then promote social mobility and entrench inequality at a time when the nation is already horribly divided. Countries whose education systems outperform our own mostly adopt what we would call comprehensive models.

From a primary perspective, as well, I think this is excellent news. The rite of passage that was once Year 6 has already been destroyed by poorly-designed tests and the bogus data they generate (see next section.) The thought of preceding that with relentless preparations for 11+ exams doesn’t bear thinking about. Now, at least, there is only one round of high-stakes testing at the end of Key Stage 2 for schools to worry about. Which brings us to…

2.) Gove’s mad SATs: still here for now.

Sorry, folks. There will be no immediate respite from the nonsense of the SPaG test or the maddening data game. Despite all the evidence that primary assessment data isn’t worth the paper it’s written on, the government would rather have make-believe objective information than no objective information at all. Children in Year 6 will, for now, continue to sit the tests and schools will, for now, be judged on the results by people who don’t have even the most basic grasp of statistics.

The Commons Select Committee report on primary assessment published towards the end of the last parliament suggested that some politicians are at least aware of the problem. I don’t suggest you read the whole thing but the recommendations section is genuinely encouraging. In their manifesto, Labour pledged to enact the recommendations of the Select Committee report had they won the election but they didn’t win the election and at the same time as Labour didn’t win the election, in an unfortunate irony, the Conservative chair of the Education Select Committee lost his seat to the Labour challenger. So that’s all a bit of a mess right there.

The winds of change are blowing but the Assessment House that Gove Built stands stubbornly upright for now. Keep making noise and keep the pressure on; this government is weak and change is attainable. You can find out more about this issue by going to see one of the UK’s most celebrated education bloggers discuss these issues live. More dates in London and hopefully elsewhere will be announced shortly- tell your friends. It’s the best primary assessment-themed night out you’ll ever have.

3.) Budget cuts – unclear

Headteachers have become increasingly concerned about the horrendous shortfalls already appearing in schools’ budgets and by the way these would be exacerbated by proposed funding formula changes. Many primary schools have Tory councillors or even MPs on their governing bodies and there was disquiet among some backbenchers about this even before the election.

There has been no indication from Theresa May that she has any intention of backtracking on plans to raid school budgets, but it is hard to believe she would have an easy time uniting a majority of the House of Commons behind cuts as serious as those being talked about a couple of months ago. This gives us some hope that, even if budgets can’t be protected in their entirety, the damage may not be as severe as once feared.

4.) The Narrowing of the Curriculum- apparently that’s our fault anyway.

Before I start this final section I must point out that, even though they very clearly aren’t, Ofsted are completely independent from government.

The new head of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, recently upheld the time-honoured Ofsted tradition of identifying a problem that Ofsted itself caused, blaming schools for it and then promising to punish them for it.

This time it was schools who teach to the test. Ms Spielman rightly outlined all the reasons why rigidly teaching to the test is bad and made it clear that Ofsted would penalise schools for teaching to the test. However, she also appeared to indicate that Ofsted would continue, as it always has, to penalise schools for not teaching to the test as well.

Some things never change.

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