What should be in the 2015 election manifestos? This was the question for a public debate at the IOE in March, run in conjunction with The Independent. One of my colleagues, in an email explaining that he could not attend, had a short, sharp answer: the single word “less”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it wasn’t a line pursued by our panellists: two former secretaries of state (Estelle Morris, now a Labour peer, and Kenneth Baker, now a Conservative peer), a former director-general for schools in the DFE (Jon Coles, now chief executive of an academy chain) and the chair of OFSTED, Baroness Sally Morgan.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the evening was the degree of overlap, if not quite agreement between the panellists. Jon Coles argued that there is now a political consensus in England about most major education issues and that politicians and the public worry much less about the wider purposes of education than some specialists: it’s about breadth and depth, about skills for life and creativity.
And this consensus ran through the evening. It was Kenneth Baker, the Tory architect of the 1988 Education Reform Act, who argued that the so called ’royal route’ of GCSEs, three A-levels and university, was producing too much graduate unemployment, and Labour’s Estelle Morris who argued that in vocational education we are still living with the failures of the 1944 tripartite system.
Jon Coles – from many years’ experience of policy implementation – said that vocational education really demanded consistent political will over a decade to embed a national programme. And what was true of vocational education was true of other topics: the panel agreed that the national curriculum had defined a core entitlement for learners – itself worth having – but too frequently was taught in ways that were inimical to the skills required in the workplace: group work and collaborative working (Baker), or the development of persistence and resilience (Morgan). As Estelle Morris pointed out, government, almost by definition is not good at stimulating creativity in the curriculum – that depends on teachers.
Jon Coles developed the theme, wondering what it would feel like if we did genuinely have a much more confident school system. In curriculum, assessment and teaching, there was a view – actually put from the floor, but capturing the spirit of the panel – that the radical reforms of the last four years have defined the policy territory for the foreseeable future: academisation will not be rolled back, the curriculum has been decisively re-shaped and assessment reform has been extensive. The challenges for the next parliament may well be pressing but unglamorous ones: securing enough school places in the face of rising rolls, addressing the challenges of school governance in a system in which education is provided by 25,000 autonomous institutions, developing a common and reliable funding formula. Across the panel there was unanimity that publicly funded schools should not be run for profit – despite some noise from think tanks – and a concern, articulated by Sally Morgan that whoever is in government after 2015 will face a growing issue over financial probity in school funding.
Sharp challenges came from the floor: a recently retired London headteacher posed the very real challenges created by the tight accountability framework for heads dealing with the challenges of poverty. Another questioner pointed up the challenge of ensuring high quality careers advice. And another the challenge of community cohesion.
Most of the debate focused on the school system, and, within that, most of it had a strongly secondary flavour. It was Sally Morgan who highlighted the challenge that policymakers face in joining up big ideas, arguing that – on a 15 year time scale – if we really want to raise attainment at 16 and 18 and reduce NEETs we need to invest in ‘school readiness’ in the early years.
There was a sense that the next five years will be a demanding slog in education policy, and Jon Coles encapsulated it all, suggesting that after years of change in what he called the ‘tectonic plates’ of education we needed a period of policy stability. Whether that delivers the “less policy” my colleague looked for is another matter: education is too important for the politicians not to intervene.