by Laura Potts
Last week saw the government’s Autumn budget released for public scrutiny. The report starts by stating that the United Kingdom has “a bright future”, with talk of an independent economy forging new relationships with the EU. This long term plan is meant to give voters the belief to take the long road with the government for a better Britain, but their sweeping statements do not at all sit in line with what I and many others would see as a ‘brighter future’. This is as true in the field of education as any other.
The Chancellor’s new education spending plans have a variety of concerning implications. An extra £600 will be awarded to secondary schools and sixth-form colleges for each new pupil taking maths, further maths and core maths at A-level, at an expected total cost of around £177m. This is not being done for the inherent value of learning about maths, but due to the subject’s projected importance in the ‘new economy’ of England. As I read this I was filled with disappointment. Many of us dedicate ourselves to encouraging creative thinking as an indispensable part of real human progress. We have been fighting attacks on the funding and reputation of creative education for years. To read that the government will be compounding this by offering cash incentives for institutions to focus their education less on the creative side of subjects like maths and more on their applications in the capitalist machine is disheartening, to say the least.
There should not be vested financial interests for schools to focus on some subjects over others
Computer science is also getting a cash injection, with 8,000 new computer science teachers to be recruited at a cost of £84m. The budget’s opening paragraph claims that this new spending plan “ensures young people have the skills they need to get on in life”, but this is both reductionist and dishonest. We’ve all encountered the central irony of digital communications technology: that its overuse can disrupt the development of basic communication skills and deny us the warmth of human connection. It is undeniable that computer science plays a massive (and still growing) role in our world, but as with maths this government policy is focusing education on a narrow aspect of the subject, on the marketable skills of computing rather than the joy of pure digital creation. Many universities and colleges now offer creative computing courses – a UCAS search returns 196 undergrad courses in the category for the 2018-19 year. On the face of it establishing a well-practised base of knowledge at school would help students find their way to these opportunities. But it is clear that this is at best an unintended side effect of the new policy. Given the budget’s insistent emphasis on “preparing the next generation for jobs in the new economy”, can we really believe that this policy is child-focused, rather than just another part of the post-Brexit scramble for a strong economy and workforce?
Aside from these two areas, the overall picture of school funding looks bleak. Campaigners are calling this year’s budget “the biggest shortfall in education of this generation”, with no significant spending allocated to remedy the £2.8bn of cuts to school budgets that have been implemented since 2015. The creative subjects in particular will continue to suffer. If understanding of the arts and the humanities is not encouraged to develop parallel with children’s technological skills, then the creative and the technical will become less and less likely to overlap and feed into each other, as they should in a balanced education. There should not be vested financial interests for schools to focus on some subjects over others, and potentially force students into an education shaped solely by money rather than their specific interests and abilities.
The most notable thing about the budget’s policy on higher education is the almost total lack of it. We get only two significant tidbits. The budget confirms that the sale of pre-2012 student debt will be going ahead as planned, starting a four year programme of loan sales. This information has been public knowledge for a while, but many students are still not aware of what is being done with their debt. I asked a cross section of my university peers, across all 5 years and 6 different courses, and none of them had heard about the policy. Given the likely risks and consequences, it is concerning that the government seem to have successfully hidden this program away after controversy over the past few years.
The only other reference to higher education was a brief mention of changes that will make it easier for international graduates to stay and work in the UK. Although this may be a positive step for many individuals, the fact that only “highly skilled” graduates would benefit confirms that this is a cynical move for economic gain rather than any kind of softening of the government’s stance on immigration and multiculturalism. This overarching lack of engagement with the questions so many students have been asking of the conservative government is surprising, given their recent attempts to appease us with tweaks to the tuition fee system.
These developments in education policy, in combination with the move away from equality and toward elitism signalled by the increase in the higher-rate tax threshold and the continued refusal to allocate any environmental protection spending, make the Autumn budget a worrying document. It fills me with disappointment regarding the government I find myself living under. However, there is hope in every situation. There are many alternative initiatives and free thinking people who still see the benefit in nurturing creativity and human connection, and the need for investment in our environment over our economy. Hopefully, the government’s continued failure on these fronts will only increase the drive of the people working toward an equal and global future instead of the selfish “bright future” outlined in this budget.
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