The 2015 General Election, like all the others before it, produced both winners and losers. But for a majority of the electorate, democracy and education were nowhere to be spotted in the winners’ enclosure. So, who were the winners?
On the morning of Friday 8th May, just under 11.5 million happy voters, slightly less than a quarter of the electorate, were satisfied with the outcome, having scooped first prize. It had, however, been obtained in a most bizarre fashion. While we were all expecting a protracted period of horse-trading once all the ballots were counted, to find out who would be governing us for the next five years, one man stepped out, proudly sporting a sparkling blue rosette. Against all the odds, Dave’s Conservative Party had obtained an outright majority and the bookmakers had made a killing.
Surely, apart from the surprise nature of the victory, this was more than the pundits simply getting it wrong. The electorate had delivered its verdict. The people had expressed their preference with apparent conviction. It wasn’t until all the results were painstakingly unpacked and subjected to careful analysis that the full impact was acknowledged. In addition to many of the other parties involved, politics, democracy and education all took a fall and now face an uncertain future.
On a turnout of 66.1 percent with less than a quarter of the votes cast determining the eventual winner, there is little wonder that many people are now questioning the strength and robustness of that unforeseen victory and asking some searching questions about the electoral process itself.
How just is it that so many people cast a vote that counted for nothing? How can 1.5 million votes deliver 56 seats in one part of the country when 3.8 and 1.1 million votes cast for two other parties gain just one seat each elsewhere? Something is surely wrong with a system that turns 40,000 votes into one seat for the winners while 3.8 million votes are required by one of the losers to achieve the same result.
This time, first-past-the-post has dealt a severe blow to politics and democracy. In the most dramatic fashion this system has rendered the principle of one-person one-vote utterly worthless. Doubtless, there will be those who will cling to the notion that there is no case to answer. Over time, they may argue, such idiosyncratic outcomes even out. However, I have a feeling this argument will no longer stand up to scrutiny and that double standards in politics are set to be challenged. If they are, then education might belatedly become a winner.
But first, to consider how broken politics is and as an indication of why our democracy is threatened, one of the first actions of the newly appointed Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, has been to set out the government’s intention to tackle strikes in the public sector. The plan is to make it illegal to call a strike unless 40 percent of those eligible to vote do so and unless 50 percent of those votes are cast in favour of the action. On this basis, the new government would not be legal. Yes of course, more than 40 percent of those eligible to vote did so (66.1 percent precisely), but with just 36.9 percent of these voting Conservative, they are an eye-watering 13.1 percent short of the 50 percent threshold government wishes to establish as a minimum requirement for victory in public sector strike ballots.
So what of the assertion that this government is legitimate? Have the Tories obtained a clear mandate to continue with the questionable reforms to education of the last administration? What about the changes already in the pipeline for education in this parliament?
By the standard they wish to set in public sector union activity, they do not have a mandate to press ahead with their agenda for education reforms over the next five years. Following this election, our democracy is the poorer and politics are in disarray. In my view, the election has created more of a worst-case scenario for the electorate as a whole than a coalition or minority government would have done. The impact on education threatens to be especially damaging because the government has a working majority (albeit small) and the party in opposition is in disarray, caught up in infighting over its new leadership and direction.
Just two days before the general election, Robin Alexander’s CPRT blog surveyed recent education policy and warned that ‘At this election … those voters for whom education matters would do well to pay greater attention to each party’s record than to their manifesto promises.’ Unfortunately, that did not happen and we now have five years in which to fret and watch as Tory manifesto promises unfold. In relation to the condition of England’s education system itself, Robin declared that the ‘unity, coherence, consistency and equity’ which are a system’s basic requirements no longer apply because the ‘checks and balances vital to education in a democracy have been swept away, and without local mediation schools have little protection from ministers’ caprice, megalomania or what NAHT’s Russell Hobby calls their “crazy schemes”’.
In relation to Conservative plans for education funding, Sam Fredman explains why the PM’s pledge to maintain ‘flat-cash’ per pupil will actually amount to a 10 percent cut for the service over the next five years. The planned cuts to welfare and social care budgets will have the effect of weakening the impact of the vital Pupil Premium, thus worsening the plight of the most vulnerable children in our society. Conservative voters knew about this and may well have agreed with David Cameron. But, what of the 76 percent of the electorate that did not vote for him? Is this what they want to happen?
There are concerns about other areas of the new government’s policy. What about promising to create more free schools and the push for academies when, according to the Education Select Committee, the evidence does not show that these types of schools produce results any better than their local authority counterparts?
And what plans are there to address the shortage of teachers and their training? Are we all happy to accept the current uncoordinated system? The fractured system of provision, including School Direct, fast-tracking and employing unqualified teachers, takes place in a policy vacuum. More worrying still is the fact that there are no plans currently to bring this vital strategic element of the service back under central control.
Another area in disarray is pupil assessment, a CPRT priority and recurrent focus of its activity. Current proposals for the reform of the examination system and testing arrangements are widely opposed by professionals and parents alike. Calls for a thorough review of this area are ignored and our young people remain among the most tested in the world. Worryingly, the net result of this is to narrow both teaching and the curriculum, to de-motivate pupils and deny them access to the kind of education experiences they need in a fast-changing world requiring diverse attitudes, skills and competencies as well as the ability to access and evaluate humanity’s expanding store of knowledge.
I cannot cover all areas of education that require new thinking. My concern is that politicians are out of step with the needs and expectations of a modern society, the democratic process is severely damaged and the negative consequences for education are considerable. Yet the latest announcement from Nicky Morgan on her return to office as Secretary of State for Education shows where we are heading. Naming and shaming, it seems, is still very much the order of the day. Zero tolerance of failure, we are assured, will turn the situation around. The SoS is clear about what must be done to bring failing schools to heel: ‘Mrs Morgan told the BBC that results show that students do better in academies.’ But let us not get bogged down in the debate about what constitutes evidence in education reform. Politicians of all shades simply know what’s best.
These are potentially dark days for education. Lies will continue to be peddled by those pulling the levers of power, supported by a largely lazy media. The voices of professionals will continue to be ignored. Parents and young people will be denied their right to equal partnership in deciding the future direction of education. Creeping privatisation will continue the slow but steady dismantling of the system most of us dearly want to see revived and valued for reasons other than profit.
But it doesn’t have to come to this. We should press for our elected representatives to reform the voting system, as increasing numbers are calling for. Our democracy can be revived. Democratic accountability would not be threatened under a different voting system.
However, it could take several more electoral cycles before politicians are willing to support such a far-reaching change. In the meantime, education is far too important to be compromised by the randomness of the electoral process and government belief that the system can survive its interminable tinkering. So while we wait for electoral reform, we should set up a National Education Commission to oversee the governance of education. The campaign at www.ordinaryvoices.org.uk calls for this to happen.
It is time to do more than urge successive governments to consider what is best for the future of the system. Through coordinated action of the kind I am calling for we can positively shape that future and ensure that state education is a winner.
John Mountford is a retired primary school headteacher and former Ofsted inspector. He has a nine year old grandson, on whose behalf he campaigns through the website Ordinary Voices for the foundation of a National Education Commission to wrest the governance of education from political control.
As with all CPRT blogs, the views expressed above are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Trust as a whole.