For a brief moment earlier this week, I thought education might become an issue in the general election campaign. The Commons Education Select Committee’s lukewarm report on the government’s academy and free school programmes was leaked to the Guardian on Monday and the accompanying story claimed that Labour hoped to open a ‘second front’ following the ‘success’ of its attacks over the NHS.
‘It is undeniable that the last Labour government dramatically improved school standards in secondary education,’ said Tristram Hunt, the shadow education secretary. ‘But the progress that we made… is being undone by a government that is obsessed with market ideology in education.’
Now, I would welcome this, obviously, and not just because it would mean Michael Gove playing a more prominent role in the Conservative campaign. The main reason is because I think the government should be proud of its record in education.
Hunt’s claims are laughable. The public education system that Gove and his team inherited from Labour was a basket case. Under the last government, spending per pupil doubled but English children slipped further down the international league tables. Between 2000 and 2009, we went from eighth to 27th in maths, seventh to 25th in reading and fourth to 16th in science. At least a fifth of children were leaving school unable to read, write or add up, and more children from a single school — Westminster — got into Oxford and Cambridge in 2010 than from all the kids on free school meals.
Under this government, by contrast, huge strides have been made. The number of English children being educated in failing schools has fallen by 250,000, the national curriculum has been rewritten with more emphasis on knowledge, rigour will shortly be restored to GCSEs and A-levels, and headteachers have the powers they need to enforce discipline.
As for the academy and free school programmes, as Dennis Sewell writes on p. 18, they are big successes. In 13 years, Labour set up 203 academies. There are now 3,304. The Education Committee takes the government to task, not because children aren’t doing better in these schools, but because Labour’s sponsored academies improved faster than the converter academies that have sprung up in the past five years. But the first wave began as failing schools, whereas the second were mostly good or outstanding to start with. If they’ve improved less quickly, it’s because they haven’t had as far to go.
Free schools are often seized upon by left-wing critics as the weakest of Gove’s education reforms, but there, too, the government has a good story to tell. To date, 251 have opened, with a further 110 in the pipeline. Once full, these schools will provide nearly 200,000 new places and, contrary to the propaganda spewed out by the teaching unions, the vast majority are in areas where there’s an acute shortage of places. Meeting that need by setting up free schools, which cost less than half as much as new local authority schools, has saved the taxpayer a great deal of money.
The BBC’s unrelenting focus on ‘failing’ free schools, although just two have been shut down so far, obscures the fact that almost three-quarters of those inspected by Ofsted have been ranked good or outstanding, well above the national average. And a handful are genuinely world-beating. For instance, Ark Conway in Acton, one of the first 24 free schools to open in 2011, has just posted the best Key Stage 1 results in the country. Not just better than every other state primary, but better than every fee-paying pre-prep as well. Stick that in your pipe, Mr Hunt.
I would dearly love Labour to open a ‘second front’ on education, but it’s unlikely to happen. Ed Miliband has no interest in education policy, as was clear from the fact that he didn’t devote a single line to it in his 2013 conference speech. He also knows that, unlike the NHS, it’s not an area where Labour consistently outpolls the Conservatives. According to the latest ComRes/ITV News poll, more people said they trusted the Tories when it came to improving our education system than Labour.
If I was Tristram Hunt, I’d keep my head down and hope for a more promising shadow cabinet post when Labour has lost, Miliband has gone and Yvette Cooper is in charge.
Why I’m praying for Labour to attack the Tories on education