Conservative education policy came under fire on several fronts on Sunday as David Cameron prepared to unveil new powers to force thousands more schools he considers are “coasting” to accept new leadership.
In a speech on Monday, the prime minister will say that under a Tory government up to 3,500 schools in England that “require improvement” will be automatically considered for conversion to academies unless they can set out a clear plan for rapid change. In this situation, they would be taken over by other headteachers, backed by expert sponsors or high-performing neighbourhood schools, while any academy judged to require improvement could be forced to accept a new sponsor.
Under the current rules, only those schools judged “inadequate” can be forced into a change of leadership, although the prime minister previously suggested at the Conservative party’s autumn conference that he was thinking about extending the criteria.
Academies have long been championed by the Conservatives, especially former education secretary Michael Gove, but Labour and the Liberal Democrats have both raised concerns about whether they are subject to enough local supervision.
Nicky Morgan, the education secretary, first hinted at the new powers in an interview on Sunday, in which she also detailed Conservative proposals for a “war on illiteracy and innumeracy”. These would force year six pupils to undergo new tests for times tables and writing, that schools would need to pass to avoid having their leadership replaced.
“We will expect every pupil by the age of 11 to know their times tables off by heart, to perform long division and complex multiplication and to be able to read a novel. They should be able to write a short story with accurate punctuation, spelling and grammar,” Morgan wrote in the Sunday Times.
“Some will say this is an old-fashioned view, but I say that giving every child the chance to master the basics and succeed in life is a fundamental duty of any government. It’s the very minimum that a government should do and the very least the public should expect.”
Maintained schools already face being taken over for falling below the government’s benchmark in key stage two exams at the end of primary schooling. But Morgan’s proposal would put a new focus on the pass rate for specific skills tested in sections of the exams, specifically multiplication and long division, and add new questions on novels that pupils will have been expected to read.
In response, the National Association of Head Teachers, representing most primary school heads, warned that such extra testing was counterproductive and would damage the morale of the profession. Its head, Russell Hobby, said: “An inspiring and stretching ambition is essential. That is not what this latest gimmick is about. This is about breaking the morale of a profession to score points in the election.
“This is pure electioneering, but the constant churn and bluster make any concerns expressed about tackling workload ring hollow. Apparently headteachers will be sacked should any – yes, any – child fail the test. We are all for aiming high but, remember, this is a 45-minute test taken by a young child. Mistakes happen, children feel under the weather or have a bad evening beforehand. This does not mean that teachers are not working as hard as possible.”
Morgan also signalled that the Conservatives would promise to protect the schools budget beyond the current pledge for it to be maintained in the first year of a new parliament, telling the BBC’s Andrew Marr Programme she was “absolutely fighting” for this to happen. However, the announcement is unlikely to come in Cameron’s speech on Monday, which is expected to dwell more on academy status and school discipline than funding.
On Sunday, the Liberal Democrats argued that the Conservatives could not be trusted to protect spending on schools, considering they had tried to push for real terms cuts to the budget.
David Laws, a Lib Dem education minister, said: “The Conservative assumption in 2010 was for a cash freeze in the schools budget – a whopping 10% cut in real terms over the course of the parliament. When they put that to us, the Liberal Democrats insisted on properly protecting the schools budget and getting real terms increases year on year. They tried to cut the schools budget in 2010 and I fear that history is repeating itself in 2015.
“Their silence on the protection of the funding for early years, schools and colleges is deafening.”
The Lib Dems also made clear they want to make education a key election battleground by laying into Gove, now Tory chief whip, who was unpopular with many teachers. He was at the centre of a separate row over the weekend about whether he was “back-seat driving” education policy by secretly receiving paperwork from his former department. Morgan said she had seen no evidence that this was the case, while a Cabinet Office spokesman said it was “totally untrue”.
Releasing a “dossier” on Gove, the Lib Dems claimed they stopped him allowing free schools from becoming profit-making, bringing back the old GCE O-levels, making cuts to nursery buildings, rewriting history and axing climate change from the national curriculum, and politicising Ofsted, the schools regulator.
A Lib Dem spokesman said the party had been “engaged in a behind-the-scenes battle over education with Michael Gove and the Conservatives’ ideological agenda” for the past five years but the fight was far from over. A Conservative spokesman dismissed the claims as “simply nonsense” and argued the Liberal Democrats have begun to “fall into line with Labour”.
Morgan also made a highly ambitious pledge “to be one of the top five performing countries worldwide — and the best in Europe — for English and maths by the end of our next term in office” in 2020.
Tristram Hunt, the shadow education secretary, argued that the Conservative policy of allowing untrained teachers to work in schools would make reform harder.
“The surest way to raise standards in every lesson, in every school, is to improve the quality of teaching in the classroom. That begins with an end to David Cameron’s unqualified teachers policy,” Hunt said.
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