Truss and Sunak’s ideas on education are “sugar rush” policymaking, expert says

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“This is sugar rush politics. It grabs a headline but has no real substance.” This was the verdict from a leading figure in the world of education on political promises about schools and universities from the two candidates in the conservative leadership race.

Education may not have been a central battleground in the campaign so far, but a number of eye-catching themes have already emerged. First grammar schools. Both Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak would like to see more of them. Is it feasible? Will it happen, and what will the consequence be?

It is currently illegal to open new grammar schools, thanks to a work ban, which has been in place since 1998. The selective system was phased out in most parts of the country from the 1960s due to concerns that it entrenched inequality and these concerns persist. .

About 160 grammar schools remain in England, and in recent years pupil numbers at these schools have increased considerably as the Tories have toyed with further expanding the range, allowing existing schools to grow. Theoretically, the ban can be lifted, and there have actually been calls for it to be included in the government’s recent school proposal.

However, all the evidence suggests that grammar schools harm the life chances of disadvantaged children, and any attempt to lift the ban will be met with fierce resistance. Critics say that working-class children do worse in areas of the country that have retained grammar schools and that disadvantaged children are severely under-represented in grammar schools. Just 8.3% of primary school pupils attract the additional pupil premium available to the most disadvantaged pupils, compared to a national average of 27.6% at secondary schools in England.

Sir Chris Husbands, who is headmaster of Sheffield Hallam and an expert on education policy, said: “Areas of selective schools tend to have a competitive economy with private tutoring – one reason why children from the affluent middle class tend to dominate in grammar schools.

“The heyday of primary school was two generations ago, when psychologists believed that intelligence was fixed and unchanging, and therefore could be reliably assessed at any age. We now know that this is simply wrong.”

He added: “It’s hard to understand the campaign to define four-fifths of children as ‘failures’ when they are 11 – especially for a party with ‘ambition’. Politicians forget that grammar schools were largely killed by their intense electoral popularity.”

Indeed, YouGov polling earlier this year found that less than a third (29%) of those surveyed believed the government should build more grammar schools, compared to 23% who were in favor of ending selection and forcing existing grammar schools. is open to children of all levels.

One of the other notable education ideas to emerge during the campaign is Liz Truss’ proposal that all students with three A*s at A-level should automatically be offered an interview for a place at either Oxford or Cambridge, as a way of improving the access on.

As well as placing an additional burden on these universities, “this pre-occupation of Oxbridge devalues ​​every other university in the country”, said Husbands. “But the most practical challenge is that no student has any grades, let alone 3 A*s, when they apply to university.”

The Truss campaign has said it will reform admissions so that students will apply to university according to the grade of their A-level exam results, rather than before, when offers are made based on predicted grades. This system of post-qualification admission (PQA) has its supporters, and works well in other countries, but it would present major challenges to the academic calendar, which some argue makes it impractical.

“It was last rejected just a few months ago [the then education secretary] Nadhim Zahawi who saw the potential for chaos and rushed to make decisions, says Husbands.

Claire Callender, professor of higher education at Birkbeck and the UCL Institute of Education, is concerned about the impact of Truss’s Oxbridge interview policy on contextual admissions – where additional information, such as where students live or what school they went to, is taken into account. try to make the system fairer.

With the introduction of Truss’s policy, Oxbridge may not have the capacity to interview those students whose grades may be slightly lower due to circumstances, but whose potential may be greater. Another approach to interviews might be better, she suggests.

“To widen participation, there could be an argument for interviewing all children who receive free school meals or who live in Polar 1 areas (which have the lowest student participation rates),” Callender said. “Otherwise the proposal is aimed primarily at the wealthiest pupils who went to independent schools and who believe (or their parents believe) they are being squeezed out of Oxbridge.”

Rishi Sunak, meanwhile, is pledging to build on existing Conservative policies to phase out university degrees that do not improve students’ “earning potential” and speed up the controversial Higher Education (Freedom of Expression) Bill, which is currently in the House of Lords.

In an interview with the Sunday Times, he also outlined plans for a new “British Baccalaureate” which would require all 16-year-olds to study maths and English, beyond GCSE. “In Germany, France, Asia, young people study mathematics until they are 18, and the way a modern economy works, I think it will hold us back if our young people don’t have those skills,” the former chancellor said.

Labor unveiled a similar policy in 2014, and it is true that in most developed countries key subjects such as maths are compulsory until pupils leave school. However sensible the idea, it will require huge investment and many hundreds more teachers at a time when the economy is tight and there is already a crisis in the recruitment and retention of teachers, especially in mathematics.

“Once this party election is over, there will be serious education policy that needs to be addressed,” Husbands said. How to fund schools after years of underinvestment, how to improve educational attainment and recovery after the disruption of the pandemic, the widening achievement gap and the growing funding challenges at universities where tuition fees have fallen in value after being frozen for a decade.

“None of the candidates give any impression that they are ready for it. The schools deserve better. Universities deserve better. But most of all, children and young people deserve better.”

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