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Can Radical Education Reform Win an Election?

General election 389x267

With a General Election looking increasingly likely this year, NAHT’s General Secretary Paul Whiteman encourages all political parties to avoid eye-catching slogans in favour of the basics.

Whether we wanted it or not, whether we predicted it or not, we now find ourselves in General Election territory.

Last time, education was the defining doorstep issue. A Survation poll suggested that 800,000 people switched their votes because of what the two main parties were saying about education in 2017.

The need to avoid this happening again has prompted the current government to throw £2.6bn at the problem for 2020/21, with the promise of more to follow.

This is actually a pretty radical move, because up until recently, the standard line had been that there was no crisis in education funding at all.

I am pleased that the Treasury accepted that new money was needed, and they delivered a significant amount. But when you analyse the figures behind the headline promise, many schools will still be making cuts as we got to the polls and long term funding still falling short of restoring previous cuts.

Importantly though, a precedent has been set for whoever wins the next election. Further investment in education is necessary. It is also popular with voters.

But do voters also respond to radical education proposals in election manifestos?

The view from the headteachers’ office is that politics easily gets fixated with changing structures, chucking out the system implemented by the outgoing party in favour of a new one.

This is not what education needs.

For a start, education is a long game. Children can enter nursery schools aged two and emerge blinking from the state sector at twenty-two, having been through primary, secondary and university settings.

And yet, modern Education Secretaries barely last longer than a Key Stage. Children who started school in 2015 are already on their fifth Secretary of State. Each one had a vision. Each one had a radical new policy. Each one got moved on and their reforming agenda was overwritten by the next occupant of the office – even without a change of government.

General Elections seem to demand eye-catching policies, but in education, the most radical approach would be to let the many reforms of recent years bed in whilst focussing on delivering the basics that schools need.

So, what are the basics in NAHT’s view?

First and foremost, we need a fully funded education system where the investment announced this autumn is built on, the real-terms cuts since 2010 are reversed, and there’s guaranteed investment for the long term.

Secondly, we need enough teachers and leaders for every class and every school – currently we’re attracting too few graduates and losing too many experienced hands.

Thirdly, we need a reformed inspection system that supports school improvement, so that all pupils and staff have a great place to work and learn.

With those three things in place, schools and colleges need to be able to offer a broad range of subjects to all pupils. Currently, the straitjacket of the EBacc, amongst other things, works directly against that ambition.

Lastly, recognising that schools and colleges do not operate in a vacuum, support services like health and social care must be given what they need to match the demands that exist.

That’s radical enough for me.

I am not sure that a radical vison for education will win an election. But getting the basics wrong might just lose one.

First published 31 October 2019