So you think it’s been a big week for education policy announcements? Well you would, because you’re involved in the sector. But what about the man and woman in the street?
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but education gets in the news fairly frequently. (I mean, of course, you’ve noticed. After all, you’re reading an education newspaper. It’s fair to say you have some interest in the topic. Or are the editor’s parents. Or both.)
But this week has been “Education Week” (capitals obligatory) according to the government news grid, which is a tool for mapping out policy announcements and speeches that ministers make so that they gain maximum media attention and don’t clash with each other.
When I worked in government, what was on the grid was a Pretty Big Deal (capitals also obligatory) as that tended to drive the main focus of the week, dictate ministerial diaries, and act as resolution for inter-departmental disputes (if the prime minister is about to make a speech on crime, for example, then the Home Office and Department X really need to sort out what the line is on any contentious policy areas discussed at that time).
Opinion polls show that the public has little understanding of very specific topics
So inside government, Weeks (as opposed to weeks) matter. But how much do they actually break through to the public? Helpfully, we have a way of finding out. Every week, the polling company Populus tracks the top ten most noticed news stories that its panel of voters can spontaneously recall. For last week (ending January 30) – in which, as readers of Schools Week will certainly recall, there was endless political debate around the general election, around NHS spending and “weaponisation”, and around the ascension of Syriza in Greece, such events (when asked on the Wednesday and Thursday of that week) were mentioned by 5 per cent, 4 per cent, and 8 per cent of the panel respectively. The snow on both sides of the Atlantic came top by miles, with 28 per cent recall. In other words, it is a safe bet that in this week’s poll, whether or not headteachers will be sacked if a single 11-year-old can’t do 7×9 will not register highly with the voting public.
But this isn’t the same thing as saying education announcements, such as the ones this week by government, aren’t important, even if the detail behind them is often lacking. They provide a high level commitment within which the Department for Education can begin to develop detailed policy in consultation with the sector, and act to generate helpful (or not so helpful) thoughts and policy suggestions from third parties, like Policy Exchange. And even if opinion polls show that the public has little understanding of very specific topics – which is understandable, given that the average member of the public thinks about politics for precisely four minutes per week – political science research has shown how broad perceptions of a party’s standing on an issue does affect voting behaviour .
As esteemed political commentator Bridget Jones put it, “If only Jude and Shazzer had been there it would have been all right, since they could have explained it is perfectly obvious that Labour stands for sharing, kindness, gays, single mothers and Nelson Mandela, as opposed to braying bossy men having affairs with everyone, shag shag shag left right and centre and going to the Ritz in Paris, then telling all the presenters off on the Today programme”. In other words, Education Week has been about promoting high level messages – tough on standards, schools to continue to be (relatively) well funded, no child leaving primary school not learning their times-tables.
In a world in which we continue to spend significant amounts of public money on free education, those messages are going to continue. But if constant government interference, messaging and initiatives wears you down, have a word with any colleague who works in children’s social care or mental health. Just occasionally, it’s worth remembering that being top of the political bill can pay dividends for schools. We may well come to miss it if it goes.
Jonathan Simons is Head of Education at Policy Exchange