The Liberal Democrats published their spending priorities for education on Monday, but by ignoring the debate about the content and purpose of schooling they missed the chance to make any contribution to the real debate in education.
In pledging to scrap tuition fees, increasing spending on poor kids at school, and grow child care provision, Nick Clegg made great play of counting the cost in our current economic circumstances. So, he also announced a range of cuts, notably tax credits for 2.5 million people and the Child Trust Fund.
But, in the context of ballooning public debt and rising unemployment, a ‘more of the same’ argument isn’t what we need.
It’s not just that all parties are agreed to protect and even grow slightly their spending in education (hence why the headlines are less about the investment, and more about the cuts). Schools are likely to be relatively protected, but not from pressures that greater hardship will bring.
In coming years, a rise in unemployment seems likely to contribute to a range of social problems affecting communities – for example property crime and hate crimes, none of which will be good for young people’s wider well being. At the same time, money for third sector community services, a notable example being youth work provision and youth centres, seems likely to shrink. Schools are likely to be amongst a lessening number of community institutions and services, and the pressure they are under to account for the welfare and caring role may well grow as a result.
We currently have a push-me-pull-you approach in the education system, where league tables and initiatives like the National Challenge on the face of it push schools to emphasise subject knowledge (though evidence seems continually to grow of various institutions gaming the system). At the same time, a raft of initiatives pull schools to think about the wider well being agenda, most recently flagged up by the A Good Childhood report. SEAL, PLTS, and extended schools are notable examples.
This approach seems likely to creak even further in the coming climate of austerity, and needs rethinking.
The parties need to articulate a vision for schools which show how they will place them at the heart of communities, combatting the growing problems of acquisitive individualism by resourcing local people to live a fulfilling life in greater association.
It can, and as Sir Cyril Taylor points out in his new book, A Good School for Every Child, has been done.