Parliament will be dissolved on Monday 30 March, and the starting gun for the election campaign will be fired. Thus far, education has not dominated the story of the 2015 general election, one of the most unpredictable in recent memory.
There has been a flurry of announcements in recent weeks from the Conservatives and Labour about what they will do should they secure the keys to Downing Street on May 7th (a possibility that appears unlikely without the support of Nigel Farage, Nicola Sturgeon or Nick Clegg), but nothing approaching the blizzard that has been afforded the economy, the issue that is likely to determine the outcome.
The narrative framework that has dominated the long election campaign is this rather simple distinction: keep the Tories behind the wheel and let them steer us to economic security and a balanced budget, or give the keys to Labour and allow them to stop along the way to share the proceeds of recovery with all of those who have been left at the side of the road by zero hours contracts, welfare reform and the ‘bedroom tax’. Education has, it must be said, been something of a subplot to this story.
In advance of the publication of the party manifestos and CPRT’s own priorities for the next government, I will outline what each of the major parties in England have to say on education, and how this sits in relation to the broader narratives they have sought to spin.
The Conservatives are looking to continue their existing policies by establishing many more free schools and academies outside the control of local authorities.
On March 9th, David Cameron pledged to open at least a further 500 free schools in England should the Conservative Party secure a majority. This is being pursued even though there is little evidence to support it: not only have there have been two high-profile failures of free schools (Al-Madinah in Derbyshire and Discovery in Sussex), there is also no evidence to support Cameron’s claim that ‘free schools don’t just raise the performance of their own pupils – they raise standards in surrounding schools in the area too.’
Similarly, as Warwick Mansell suggested in his recent blog on the subject, there is plenty of evidence to contradict the Government claim that sponsored academies are improving faster than the national average. Nevertheless, Cameron also announced on March 9th that all primary and secondary schools rated as ‘requiring improvement’ or ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted would be forced to become academies.
This, coupled with the usual tough talking about ‘the basics’ of reading, writing, and maths, and a utilitarian approach to education driven by the party’s subservience to neoliberal dogma (hence Cameron’s declaration that all children ‘should be taught how to turn a profit’), and the Tory approach to education after 2015 represents a perpetuation of what has come before: pursuing an ideologically-driven agenda despite the mounting evidence against these policies. More important than evidence, it seems, is the maintenance of a carefully-cultivated image of being simultaneously opposed to state intervention in most areas of public life, while retaining an authoritarian streak when it comes to ensuring ‘higher standards’.
Many in education are disenchanted with the Labour Party’s unwillingness to commit to changing course substantially from what the Coalition has pursued. It is this caution that has dogged Labour’s approach to opposition since 2010, but it is entirely in keeping with its broader attempt to cultivate an image of being a slightly more agreeable version of its Tory opponent in all matters (and education is one of them).
With this in mind, Labour has pledged to restore local oversight of schools to ensure ‘high standards’, with a particular emphasis on improving teachers’ access to high quality professional development in order to appear supportive and ‘on the side’ of teachers as they face increased pressure to deliver better results and higher standards, working longer hours for comparatively less pay than other professions.
To sweeten the pill further, Ed Miliband recently committed a future Labour government to strengthening creative education in schools, ‘guaranteeing every young person access to the arts and culture’. Of course this is a move welcomed by CPRT which is committed to a broad, balanced curriculum and has specifically campaigned for the arts, but we would echo the concern expressed by the NUT that creative education cannot be a ‘simple add-on to a system which is otherwise left unchanged.’
This particular policy could be viewed, if one were so cynically minded, as merely a further attempt by Labour to widen the miniscule shaft of light that exists between the two larger parties. While it has been noted that Labour and the Tories are more ideologically distinct now than they have been for at least two decades, Labour is keen to ensure that the image they project, particularly on the economy but also on education, is one of broad similarity with the Conservatives (‘tough on standards’). In so doing, they hope to retain electoral credibility, although whether such a strategy can be successful remains to be seen.
The image the Liberal Democrats have sought to cultivate is of a calming, moderating influence on the extremes represented by the two major parties: more fiscally prudent than Labour, less heartless than the Conservatives. The Lib Dems have been particularly keen to emphasise their distinction from the Tories in this regard, trumpeting their achievements in Government in the areas of Early Years (free school meals for all children in Reception, Year 1 and Year 2, and 15 hours free early education to all three-to-four year-olds and 40 per cent of two-year-olds), and establishing a £2.5 billion Pupil Premium aimed at assisting those pupils who most need it.
What would they do if they secured a majority? David Laws reiterated recently that their number one priority will be to protect the education budget, something the Conservatives have not guaranteed. Their two flagship achievements while in Government will likely be extended, with more money pledged for disadvantaged children and free childcare for all two year olds.
This is welcomed by CPRT which remains committed to tackling social and educational disadvantage and helping schools to find practical ways to address these problems, and has two research projects in this area currently in progress. However, it remains obvious that such initiatives will only meet with limited success when broader economic policy is destined (if not explicitly designed) to further exacerbate inequality. This argument, strongly presented in CPR’s final report, is even more urgent following five years of economic austerity that shows little sign of abating whatever the makeup of the next government.
As increasing poll numbers have forced Ukip to develop policies in areas other than immigration, so the party’s inclination towards an uncomplicated restoration of a supposedly more simple, stable and glorious past has made itself even more apparent. In keeping with this, its pledges in education involve allowing existing schools to become grammar schools (with one established in every town) and a ‘back to basics’ approach that focuses on the 3 Rs. Given its policies in higher education, where students pursuing STEM subjects will be offered tuition fee waivers, it is clear that UKIP is not committed to a broad and balanced curriculum but rather a relentless and dogmatic focus on ‘standards’ with a curriculum skewed heavily towards the sciences. Most disturbing, however, is the recent announcement from Nigel Farage that children of new immigrants should be prevented from attending state schools for up to five years.
The Green Party, the membership of which has soared in recent months as left-leaning voters grow increasingly disgruntled with Labour, has committed to a series of measures that will likely prove popular with the profession: scrapping Ofsted and replacing it with a ‘collaborative system of monitoring school performance’, allowing teachers, schools and local authorities to work together to maintain high standards. They also advocate replacing the national curriculum with a set of ‘learning entitlements’ in order to liberate teachers to adapt classes to the needs of their pupils and deliver a more ‘enriching and rewarding’ experience. They aim to bring free schools and academies back under local authority control, abolish Sats and league tables, and make school optional until age 7. Most encouraging, however, is the determination that schools should nurture students’ potential and not merely become clearing houses for the ‘next generation of workers’.
Where does that leave us?
The disenchantment with the Labour Party’s unwillingness to challenge the Conservative ‘consensus’ in all matters, not just education, is symptomatic of a wider crisis of vision in politics. As economist Will Hutton and satirist Armando Iannucci have lamented in recent weeks, our politicians have become little more than glorified bean-counters obsessed with the budget deficit, while steadily handing over power and responsibility to the market under the guise of allowing citizens more freedom from central control.
These developments are disturbing not just in the immediate context of the upcoming election, but also in the longer term. This hardly needs further reiteration, but we are undergoing rapid and potentially seismic changes that are likely to have a huge impact on this (and the next) generation of children: the size and constitution of Britain’s population, the pervasiveness and power of digital technologies and the escalating consequences of climate change, all of which are indicative of the continued and increasing impact of globalisation.
If these conversations are being had, they are not loud enough, or they are viewed solely through the prisms of other factors: the economic ‘global race’ consistently emphasised by the Conservatives which posits a disturbingly utilitarian view of education (again exposed by CPR), or the apparent dangers of uncontrolled immigration from Ukip, and the pressure this will put on the education system.
What this summary of policies indicates is that not only is the debate about education occurring on a small and diminishing patch of turf but that it is not tied anywhere near substantially enough to the wider concerns our society faces in the coming years beyond the desire for a secure and growing economy. Those wider concerns are one of the three pillars of the Cambridge Primary Review and CPRT, hence ‘Children, their world, their education’.
So what’s the story of primary education in 2015? It seems much like those we have heard before, and it fails to address many of these challenges.
There are other avenues that demand exploration: during the past year CPRT has, in accordance with its eight priorities, offered critiques of the Government’s policies on curriculum, assessment, academies and its use of both national and international evidence. It has pressed the case for children’s voices as an essential component of educational practice, endorsed the UN’s vision of ‘a sustainable future with dignity for all’, called for a curriculum that takes seriously the concept of global citizenship, shed light on the plight of children who by necessity take on responsibilities for loved ones with little acknowledgement or support, and publicised the enormous challenges faced by primary schools in areas of rapid demographic change. And it has backed these critiques and campaigns with research projects, reports and practical action through its regional networks and schools alliance. All this work is summarised on the Priorities in Action page of CPRT’s website and much of it can be downloaded for circulation and discussion.
CPRT’s priorities address some of the genuine and most urgent challenges we face, but instead of substantive debate about them and compelling visions of the future, most of our politicians are obsessed with their images and preoccupied with each other’s kitchens. Cutting through this sound and fury is our first task.
Greg Frame is Administrator of the Cambridge Primary Review Trust and part-time Teaching Fellow in the Department of Theatre, Film and Television at the University of York.