A new school year is under way, and already pressures are acute. The six-month freeze on energy bills promised by the prime minister offers short-term relief but leaves headteachers to puzzle over what happens next. Schools in England are expected to turn to reserves – if they have them. With a 5% pay rise for teachers also due to come out of existing budgets, finances are precarious.
Teaching assistants’ jobs are at risk, along with educational trips. Senior Conservative figures are among those warning that high inflation and funding shortfalls are placing headteachers in an impossible position. The post-pandemic catchup is far from complete, after the botched outsourcing of the main tutoring contract. Added to these problems is a shortage of teachers that ministers have known about for years. A recruitment and retention strategy announced in 2019 has not brought results. Instead, new figures show that the situation is getting worse, with vacancies at their highest level since 2010. This year just 25% of the required number of trainee physics teachers have been recruited. Almost half of teachers say they plan to quit within five years.
Teaching unions will this month take the first step towards strike action. Last week, in a joint initiative with education charities and other groups, they petitioned Kit Malthouse, the new secretary of state, to develop a long-term strategy including new vocational routes. It was clear before Liz Truss took office that the government had lost its way: now Mr Malthouse is the fifth education secretary in a year, and the schools white paper is on hold. But the signals being sent by Downing Street are the worst ones imaginable. Rather than focus on the practicalities of energy costs and insulation, how to retain good teachers and supporting pupils through the cost of living crisis, the prime minister wants to create more grammar school places.
It should not be necessary in 2022 to point out why this is a terrible policy. Because selection via the 11‑plus exam continues in some areas, a live experiment has been running for decades. It shows that selective areas do not outperform non-selective ones. On the contrary, multiple studies show that any enhancement of the grades of grammar pupils is achieved at the expense of pupils in non-selective schools in the same areas. Through grammar schools’ practice of taking a disproportionately small number of pupils from poor backgrounds, and pupils with special educational needs, they increase existing inequalities. There is no way to “tutor-proof” entrance tests to prevent better-off families from buying their children an advantage.
Grammars never educated more than a quarter of children – which is why they became unpopular and were abolished. Their heyday was a period when psychologists believed intelligence was fixed and easily measurable. Ministers can’t turn back the clock, nor should they want to. But appointments to Mr Malthouse’s team, including Rory Gribbell, indicate that this is the plan.
It may never happen. Many authoritative voices will oppose it. Becky Francis of the Education Endowment Foundation, which advises the government on tackling inequality in schools, has urged ministers to “focus on evidence not ideology”. Education did not feature prominently in the leadership race, and appears to have fallen off ministers’ list of priorities. But it is an indictment of the new prime minister and her party that when parents, pupils and teachers have so much to worry about, they have nothing to offer beyond the urge to flog a dead horse.