There’s a moment in every child’s life where they happen upon the secret to all of mankind’s woes.
“But,” the confused child says with their best indignant voice, “why don’t we just print more money and give it to the poor people?”
As an embarrassed grown-up you hum and haw, trying to explain that “things aren’t that easy” and weighing up whether your 5 year old is ready to understand the inner workings of the monetary system, which you suddenly realise that aged 38 you still don’t really understand yourself, and so all you can do is succumb to the sort of inadequate technique that your parents used and which you promised your young self you’d never do when asked such important questions.
“I wish it were that simple”, you say, while thrusting a distraction into their hands.
If printing money is the childlike solution to poverty, ‘academies’ is the government’s childlike solution to everything.
Forcing schools to become academies is a key part of the Education and Adoption Bill, already on its way to final reading in Parliament. When passed, the law will require the Education Secretary to change any maintained school rated as inadequate by Ofsted into an academy. No discretion, no get-out clauses. The government is literally passing a law to take away its own powers of judgment.
Why? Well, if you read the government’s impact assessment of the Education and Adoption Bill it states that by passing the law pupils will no longer attend “failings or coasting schools”. How this miracle will happen is unclear, given that there are no policies to stop schools becoming failures. But that’s what it says.
The document also crows that, because of academisation, pupils will leave school with better qualifications and so will get better jobs and hence, like a phoenix from ashes, children “will be able to lift themselves out of poverty”.
Education as an inoculation against poverty is not a new narrative, and it’s not untrue. The more education you have, the more advantages you tend to accumulate. But it’s a simplistic narrative. Like the child who naively thinks that printing money makes everyone rich, anyone who thinks that a policy of ‘we will demand no school be bad, and then schools will be ace, and so poverty will reduce’ is infantile in their thinking.
Labour’s opposition to the Bill highlighted the fact that there’s no clear plan for improving schools before they fail. The Conservatives predictably disagree. Ministers have said that ‘experts’ will go into schools and action plans will be drawn up. But the details on this are hazy, while changing ownership of schools into academies is crystal clear.
As if to complete the government’s ‘you can educate your way out of poverty’ hymn sheet, Ian Duncan Smith over at the Department for Work and Pensions, has also used the government’s first 100 days to redefine child poverty. Instead of basing the measure on income, it will now be based on a variety of things – one of which will be educational achievement. Schools will be both the solution to poverty, and the cause of it. Go figure.
It would be unfair to knock the Conservatives for trying to improve education and reduce poverty. That’s a good thing to do. But it’s problematic that in their first 100 days the plans for doing it have amounted to little more than political spectacle.
If the government wants to improve schools it needs to talk about access to teaching coaches, resources for marking, planning, behaviour, and wider family services such as mental health provision. If it wants to tackle poverty, it needs to talk about escalating housing, food and transport costs.
The first 100 days have brought us some expert panels and a weird law. It’s a shame they didn’t also bring us some serious policies.