Ben Jeffreys is a secondary school history teacher, was parliamentary candidate for Cheadle at the 2010 General Election.
As a teacher in a state school, Conservatives might expect me to have become a recalcitrant leftist and argue an Old Etonian’s privileged education is actually a reason not to support him.
Nonsense. Eton is a stunning school that delivers an outstanding education. As do Charterhouse (Hunt), Dulwich College (Farage), Douglas Academy (Swinson), and Adams Grammar School (Corbyn). Attacking someone in public service for having been well schooled is, one might say, utter piffle.
There is actually only one issue of relevance in Johnson’s Eton education: he was a King’s Scholar. That fact is critical.
In 1440, King Henry VI founded Eton as a charitable foundation to provide education for 70 bright children from poor backgrounds. His intention was to educate these 70 children, first at Eton and then at King’s College Cambridge, to get talented but poor children working for the early English state. Ironic.
Alongside 1,200 Oppidans, there are still around 70 King’s Scholars, often from less privileged backgrounds, holding what is in effect an early state scholarship to study at England’s most privileged school. There may have been twenty Prime Ministers from Eton but Johnson is only the third King’s Scholar, after Sir Robert Walpole and Harold MacMillan.
This perhaps explains the highly traditional Conservative view that he has of education: that a good education opens the door to success, and therefore every individual, from every background, should be offered the very finest education possible and be allowed to make of it what he or she can.
This Prime Ministerial view was perhaps confirmed in the decision to give the three great Offices of State (Chancellor, Foreign Secretary, and Home Secretary) to three children from immigrant families who took their opportunities from a good state education.
The first, Sajid Javid, son of Pakistani immigrants, was educated at Bristol state comprehensive Downend. The second, Dominic Raab, son of a Czechoslovakian migrant Jew, was educated at Dr Challoner’s, a state Grammar School. The third, Priti Patel, a child of migrating Ugandan Asians, was educated at Westfield Technical College. The three then became banker, lawyer, and successful political activist. All succeeding from a state-funded education.
Johnson was always convincing on Education. As early as 2002, he spoke of his desire not to “denigrate the teaching profession – I was briefly a teacher in Australia and know how hard teaching is – I had a tough time of it”. He also referenced “a calamitous falling off in the respect in which teachers are held… we should give back autonomy to teachers”. Good stuff.
One of his earliest appointments in 2005 was as Shadow Minister for Education. In March 2007, he demanded “that all students in all schools have equal access to the vital utensils that they will need to get to higher education… we are seeing, time and again, the results of failures at early stages of education.” And let us not forget Johnson was one of very few Conservative MPs to vote against increasing tuition fees, in both January and March 2004 – another big plus.
In his leadership campaign, Johnson identified education as his central campaign issue. At his leadership launch he confirmed his world view, saying: “I believe in setting people free by equipping them with the education to achieve their dreams”. Asked at the first leadership hustings for the first thing he would do on his first day in Downing Street, he replied: “We need to do more for education funding in our country and I think the current formula doesn’t work”.
There is certainly a funding problem to be resolved in our state schools. The Institute for Fiscal Studies exists to “promote effective economic and social policies by better understanding”. It recently reported on school funding. This report revealed per-pupil funding direct to schools in England fell by four per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2017/18, while total school spending per pupil has fallen by eight per cent in real terms between 2009/10 and 2017/18.
You notice this in schools via rotting toilets, tighter budgets, and pressure on Parents Associations to plug the funding gap. Reversing this, say the IFS, will need serious government intervention: an immediate investment of £3.8 billion and more to follow.
Johnson has promised to close the funding gap between London (where schools are given up to £6,800 per pupil) and schools elsewhere (where some given just £4,200 per pupil), pushing the minimum per capita funding to £5,000. Consider the benefits to state schools. In a school of 1200 students, £800 more per capita means additional annual income of £960,000. Serious money.
How might that cash be spent? The Government’s document “School Resource Management: top 10 planning checks for Governors” says “staff pay is the single most expensive item in the school budget. It typically represents over 70 per cent of expenditure”. Spending 70 per cent of additional income of £960,000 in this way would mean another £672,000 annually for staff pay.
The starting salary of an unqualified teaching assistant is £17,208. A newly qualified teacher starts at £23,720. So £672,000 could go a very long way in funding more teachers of Maths, English, Science, Arts, and perhaps Drama and Classics too, reducing class sizes and expanding opportunity. And don’t forget the remaining £188,000 of additional money, increasing the stock of text books, enhancing school libraries, and reviving tired facilities.
Arguably some greater clarity is needed for what the £5,000 figure represents. Government minimum funding is already due to increase from £4,200 to £4,800 in 2019/20. Is Johnson advocating a rise of £800 or £200?
Then there’s the difference between gross and net figures. Take Southend, for example. The Department for Education provides a Dedicated Schools Grant Allocation (the gross figure) representing £5,254.47 per pupil. However, once local overheads and central education services have been subtracted, schools actually receive minimum funding of £4,800 per pupil. Which of these will be guaranteed at the £5,000 level?
There’s increasing staff salaries, with the proposed 2.7 per cent pay increase. And in September 2019-20, employer contribution to teacher pension provision increases from 16.48 per cent to 23.68 per cent, this increase of 7.2 per cent being carried by school budgets. The annual cost for all schools is estimated at £880 million. An extra £4.7 billion has been put aside to help pay for this across all public services, but the schools share is only guaranteed for the first year. Will pensions gobble up the new money for schools?
These questions certainly need answers, but there is much to be optimistic about. Tony Blair famously said that his priorities were Education, Education, Education. But in this critical area, maybe it’s our new Prime Minister, a recipient of the earliest English state education funding, who truly has the passion to deliver.