The party conference season is over and it is election-preparation time: before the end of the school year, voters will have gone to the polls and a new government will be in office. There are sharp choices to be made for all major parties: whether to offer consolidation, recognising the radical changes to curriculum, assessment and school structures introduced since the Academies Act of 2010, or to strike boldly out for more change. For the Conservatives, celebrating at their conference that more children now attend good and outstanding schools, there must be a temptation to consolidate, to build bridges with teachers and make Michael Gove’s legacy work, rather than unleashing yet more potentially disruptive change. For the Liberal Democrats, claiming credit for the pupil premium which offers schools additional resources for poorer pupils, the aim is both to ensure that they get the electoral credit for an imaginative approach to school funding and to identify a further totemic policy to carry forward. Perhaps choices are most acute for Labour: whether to try to unwind some of the structural changes, perhaps re-energising the role of local authorities, to offer reassurance that they can make the system work, or to move forward into bold new territory – perhaps re-shaping post-14 into a coherent upper secondary structure as advocated in the independent Task Force on vocational education that I chaired for them between 2012 and 2013.
Across schools, there’s understandable cynicism about political rhetoric. Few head teachers and teachers recognise their schools in their representations by politicians and the media. Behaviour is good or outstanding in over 83% of schools, so politicians who use OFSTED’s behaviour report to talk about behaviour crises are wide of the mark. The newly appointed early years minister was simply wrong when he said that in 2010 “one third of students left primary school unable to read, write or add up”. It’s also true in education policy outside schools: one minister quoted, approvingly, an OECD judgement that England had a ‘sustainable’ approach to funding universities. The OECD did say that. But they said it in 2011, before the £9,000 fee and loan regime was implemented. If politicians get their facts wrong, they are unlikely to get their policies right.
Party conferences have changed. Less about policy development – the earnest debate over the wording of conference motions – they have become opportunities for politicians to use the media to set the tone for political debate in the country. Few voters will recall Tristram Hunt’s commitment to roll out London Challenge-like regional improvement strategies across the country, or Nicky Morgan’s emphasis on the role of schools in developing character (nor, indeed, whether it was the other way round). And, indeed, the more politicians use their conference speeches to set a tone rather than to set out specific policies, the longer they spend in limbo: demonstrating an awareness of what is already in place across the system and the different demands of the party faithful and the electorate more generally, and sound bite big ideas takes them so far, but hard decisions need to be made. Education will be an election battleground. The Conservatives will, as they must, argue that they have ‘fixed’ a system that was broken; Labour will, as they must, argue that the Conservatives have ‘broken’ a system that was, on most measures, improving (if not fast enough) before 2010. Each will attempt to encapsulate their ideas in simple terms whilst also convincing that they have a serious implementation plan. The next eight months are likely to generate more heat than light. The fact is that across much of the policy landscape the three major parties agree on more than they disagree in education: all believe in operational autonomy for schools and school groups; all will, now, keep the pupil premium, all know that education sits in a wider context of tough resource decisions and widening inequalities in society. But most of all they know that with an increasing (primary) pupil population the tough challenges are the unglamorous ones of having enough school places and enough teachers to teach the growing number of pupils. We need some clearer thinking on this as well as the bigger picture issues.