Tory education policies in the 2017 election didn’t hit home with voters, but Jeremy Corbyn has the wrong ideas for schools, argues George Looker
The government’s election campaign has been widely criticised for failing to set out a positive vision and lacking broad appeal to voters. Now that the campaign is over (for the time being at least), the Conservatives have to use education policy to set out their agenda for aspiration and opportunity.
During the 2015 general election we emblazoned on anything and everything we could the statistic that a million more children were in “good” or “outstanding” schools than in 2010, while ministers and candidates would repeat the mantra that the party wanted “a good school place for every child” in their sleep, having had it repeatedly briefed from headquarters as the top line to take on education.
Despite such a positive message, and the party’s strong track record, education wasn’t an election-defining issue – and the most coverage probably came from Tristram Hunt’s bizarre attack on nuns during Question Time.
This time around, education was a central battleground
That’s because, as validated by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), both parties offered broadly similar spending packages for schools.
This time around, education was a central battleground. The policy to introduce a new wave of grammar schools meant that Labour could rebut 2015’s good-schools-for-every-child message: increased selection inherently means that not every school place is as good as another. And school funding was used effectively by opposition candidates and the unions as part of a wider campaign against necessary restraint in public sector spending, without much acknowledgement that Eds Balls and Miliband offered a similar spending settlement to the Conservatives in 2015. Back to the IFS, which calculated that spending plans for all major parties “imply real-terms cuts to school spending per pupil” of seven per cent between 2015-16 and 2019-20.
While the school funding message cut through the public conscience, the notion that Jeremy Corbyn and Angela Rayner have the right ideas for England’s schools cannot be left to stand uncontested. As they shift in the direction of the Socialist Workers Party, Labour has embraced the hard-left NUT and turned its back on Adonis and Blair-era reforms.
They aren’t questioned on their plans for raising standards; they’ve opposed every measure since 2010 to make the profession more self-led, to introduce new “outstanding” schools such as Michaela, or to ensure every child studies the core academic subjects they need to get on in life.
If, as noises from senior cabinet ministers indicate, public sector pay reviews result in a bigger budget package for schools, then the argument will shift back to underlying policy differentials. The indefatigable determination of reformers such as Nick Gibb and John Nash to make sure that all children enjoy a knowledge-based curriculum, study key EBacc subjects that will set them up for employment, and take qualifications that raise the bar for every child across the country, no matter their background, has to take centre stage. This reforming zeal should be set against the opposition’s campaigns to stop the opening of new, popular free schools, reduce the autonomy of teachers and embrace the soft bigotry of low expectations for pupils.
The government needs to set out a positive agenda based on the fundamental principle of higher standards in our schools, with a world-class curriculum for all subjects that give the next generation the skills they will need for the rest of their lives. The fantastic key stage 2 results last week showed that more children are capable of mastering higher levels of numeracy and literacy – this should be brought to the front and centre.
It might not make for an easy soundbite, but the demonstration that every child can fulfil every ounce of his or her potential is exactly the sort of positive message that the government needs to focus on and which parents (and voters) will embrace.
George Looker is former special adviser to Nicky Morgan