Poverty, GCSEs and union warfare at Tory Party Conference


Double standards at Conservative Party conference? SecEd editor Pete Henshaw tackles Cameron on privilege, Cameron on GCSEs, and Gove on the unions.

“I’m not here to defend privilege, I’m here to spread it.”

Prime minister David Cameron went on the offensive during his Conservative Party conference address this week. He made no apologies for his education at a “posh school” and said he wanted the same “great education” for every child.

Mr Cameron, echoing the long-held stance of his secretary of state for education, blasted what he described as the “culture of low expectations”. He accused his predecessors and some professionals of dismissing the potential of students simply because they are disadvantaged. 

He said: “You hear the same thing over and over again – ‘what can you expect with children like these?’, they say, ‘these children are disadvantaged’.”

Mr Cameron is right that low expectations can kill a child’s education – any child, not just the poor and vulnerable. However, the vast majority of schools spend all their time fighting to raise aspiration and build expectation. 

What our prime minister describes is not a situation that I recognise in UK schools. I see teachers and heads working hard to raise aspiration, attainment and achievement in the face of severe economic and social challenges.

In fact, the bitter truth is that so many of these challenges that schools in difficult circumstances are pitted against have been exacerbated by government economic policy.

“Of course we want to tackle disadvantage,” Mr Cameron said, but as far as I can see the government’s strategy for this is to tell students living in severe poverty to pull their socks up and work harder.

High expectations can only go so far when you are trying to raise aspirations for a student who cannot afford to go to college because of the Educational Maintenance Allowance being cut, or who sees higher education as beyond their reach because of £9,000-a-year fees. 

As much as teachers’ raised expectations heighten disadvantaged students’ aspirations and ambitions, government policy puts them firmly back in their place as they quickly realise they cannot afford to join the academic elite.

Save the Children reported last month that the poorest children in society are bearing the brunt of the recession as their families struggle to afford school uniforms, warm winter clothes and even food – as well as the additional experiences which can help to foster aspiration, such as school trips. So yes, high expectations are vital. Teachers know this Mr Cameron. They work every day to raise their students’ aspirations and self-belief. And they do this in spite of the many barriers that your government’s economic policy has put in their way.

Double standards?

In his address, David Cameron said that the one thing the government must do is to educate “all our children”. He continued: “And I mean really educate them, not just pump up the grades each year.” This not-so-subtle reference to the government’s view of GCSEs as inflated examinations which lack any kind of rigour was followed shortly after by praise for the achievements of Harris Academy in Peckham, London, which he described as a “genuine revolution”, having moved from 12 per cent of students getting five good GCSEs to almost 90 per cent. So which is it Mr Cameron, pumped up grades or a genuine revolution?

A right spectacle

Education minister Michael Gove kept a low profile at party conference. After his torrent of policy and reform, his speech was mundane, focusing as it did on his ongoing battle with the NASUWT and NUT over their industrial action. In fact, Mr Gove’s new chic and chunky glasses were perhaps the biggest revelation during his time on stage in Birmingham. I wholly welcome this bold new policy on eyewear. The fight with the unions, meanwhile, is old ground – we all know Mr Gove’s view and we know where the unions stand. Whether he wants to or not, Mr Gove has to engage more effectively with teachers if he is to bring an end to this dispute.


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