Steve Richards: Do the Tories get top marks? Not yet...

Cameron and Gove are trying to bring about a cultural shift in teaching
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The Independent Online

High marks to David Cameron for addressing one of the more fundamental questions in relation to schools. How to attract talented teachers and recruit them to schools in poorer areas?

The answers are not easy. There are endless debates about choice for parents and on the merits of selection. They are important and yet an easy diversion from the thornier issue of quality teaching. Even if all parents could select a school of their choice, a fantasy that will never be realised, they would not be satisfied if the teaching was poor. As David Willetts observed when he was briefly Shadow Schools Secretary, questions about the "supply side" in education tend to be ignored, as if by magic teaching would improve if parents could set up schools on their own.

There is a reason for this lack of focus on teaching. Debates about structures are conducted in the abstract. The question of costs is easily avoided at least for a time, as arguments rage over providers of schools and their accountability. Policies aimed at attracting talented graduates soon come down to money and the hard grind of challenging the unions' attachment to near uniform pay scales and job protection. Before the 1997 election Tony Blair stated the obvious, that useless teachers should be sacked. The reaction amongst some union leaders suggested he had declared war, which on one level he had.

Yesterday Cameron outlined his policies for attracting more talent to teaching. They included an expansion of Teach First, the innovative scheme that pays top graduates to join schools in poor areas, new financial incentives to attract top graduates in subjects where there is a shortage of teachers, and a bar to graduates who qualify with poor degrees. The speech attracted considerable attention in advance, and subsequently, although there was nothing much new in policy terms. That does not matter. Novelty is not necessarily a virtue, especially from a speaker who has been Leader of the Opposition for four years. He cannot continue to pop up with new policies as if detailed initiatives fell off trees. At least the announcements yesterday had fairly precise echoes with previous declarations. His messy document on the NHS unveiled a fortnight ago was a leap in the dark by comparison.

Once more the symbolic purpose was obvious: another attempt to show that the Conservatives care about the poor and are no longer the "nasty" party. After Cameron's focus last autumn on bleak austerity there has been a marked tonal shift this year, with the NHS, schools and policies for the poor dominating his speeches. The degree to which these policies are motivated by political positioning or by true conviction is interesting, but not especially relevant. As I have written before, what is said in opposition comes to define what happens in government, probably much more than opposition leaders realise at the time. Cameron has spent so much time emphasising his determination to address poverty and the quality of public services he will have no choice but to do so if he wins. He will be in considerable trouble if he fails in these policy areas.

He seems to be intent on addressing them in ways that are fairly equable. The Conservatives are committed to a policy of non-selection in relation to schools, or at least they say they are. The nature of the intake is as fundamental as the quality of teaching. It is easy for a school to be a success if they pluck out the brightest kids. Similarly, the schools stuck with the rejected pupils will inevitably struggle. So the Conservatives are on the right side of the two key issues, pupil intake and the central importance of getting the best teachers to the schools that need them most.

But now we come to the difficult bit, the reason why pivotal issues such as the quality of teaching tend to be swept aside for more generalised debates about structures. With good cause Cameron hails schemes such as Teach First. The Government does so as well. But the scheme is the equivalent of a pin prodding at a mountain. The initiative is partly funded from private sources, while the Government provides around half the cash. The limited money available means only a few hundred graduates have joined. Many bright applicants are rejected, including lots from Oxbridge, not because they fail to meet the criteria but because of there is no more money to pay them.

The number of schools in poor areas that would benefit from a flux of bright new teachers is vast. The number that will actually benefit is tiny. Those that do so may only receive the benefits briefly, before the ambitious graduates move on. Cameron and his Shadow Schools Secretary, Michael Gove, emphasise the cultural shift they are trying to bring about, insisting that teaching should be seen as prestigious as joining the BBC trainee scheme or a law firm. But there are very narrow limits to the impact of attempted cultural shifts. Labour politicians have been seeking a similar elevated status for the profession since Blair stressed that "education, education, education" was his main priority in the mid 1990s, a declaration made when he was a more glamorously magnetic leader than Cameron is today. Still the best graduates tended to head for the easy money of the City or the apparent glamour of the media, not that those options are so readily available any longer.

Cameron might have acknowledged the current Government has made a lot of cash available already. Teachers are better paid than they were. Quite a lot of Cameron's proposals are already being applied, as are his suggestions, made with an apparently distinctive flourish two weeks ago, that more cash should be focused on hospitals in poorer areas.

Can he improve the situation further? I am still not sure how the Conservatives will attract more top graduates into the teaching profession without spending a lot of additional cash, in the same way I await an adequate explanation of how they will pay for parents to set up their own schools alongside the ones currently available. Plans for the so-called pupil premiums in poorer areas are also vague, as presumably the cash will not be transferred from pupils in leafy Tory held constituencies.

Cameron seeks some worthwhile ends but also plans an emergency budget after the election in which the spending axe will fall. If I were a new Maths teacher I would worry that this does not quite add up.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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