The reluctance of the Conservative party to take credit for the success of its education reforms is a source of increasing bewilderment to me. With each passing year, the A-level and GCSE results of free schools and academies provide yet more evidence that liberating state schools from the dead hand of local authority control has had a transformational effect — and 2019 is no exception. Free schools such as the London Academy of Excellence in Stratford and Michaela Community School in Wembley have chalked up some of the best results in the country, while academy chains such as the Harris Federation and the City of London Academies Trust have cemented their places at the top of the league table. Yet, incredibly, education is still a vote loser for the Tories.
In the 2017 general election, Labour did unexpectedly well among 30- to 39-year-olds, with a 26-point lead over the Conservatives, and among 40- to 49-year-olds, with a five-point lead. Why? In part because parents bought into the cuts narrative being peddled by the National Union of Teachers, which spent more money on campaigning in the 12 months beforehand than Ukip did. To hear the NUT tell it, Scrooge-like Conservative education ministers had cut school spending to the bone, forcing overworked headteachers to send begging letters to parents asking them to pay for essentials such as toilet paper. In fact, real terms per-pupil spending on those aged five to 16 doubled between 1997 and 2010 and was then ring-fenced by the coalition government. Between 2015 and 2017, spending was frozen in cash terms, which amounted to a real terms cut of about 4 per cent. If any headteachers couldn’t cope with a 4 per cent cut after their budgets had doubled in the previous 18 years, that suggests serious financial mismanagement.
Yet instead of challenging this pro-Labour spin, successive Conservative education secretaries, beginning with Justine Greening, have accepted it and done their best to extract more money from the Treasury. This is both politically naive — teachers are overwhelmingly left-wing and will continue to complain about ‘Tory cuts’ even if school spending doubles again — and fiscally imprudent. According to Andreas Schleicher of the OECD, there is almost no correlation between the amount of money a nation spends per student and its results in the Programme of International School Assessment. South Korea consistently tops this international league table, yet spends below the OECD average, while the US, one of the highest spenders, has hovered around the midpoint since 2003.
Will the new Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, stop playing in defence and go on the attack? Probably not. As part of his leadership pitch, Boris promised to ‘undo’ the education cuts by injecting an additional £4.6 billion a year. Needless to say, the National Education Union, which is a rebranded version of the NUT, has already dismissed this as hopelessly inadequate, claiming the real figure needed to ‘reverse’ the ‘savage’ cuts is £12.6 billion.
If Boris is serious about wanting to raise standards, he should set aside at least 25 per cent of that increase to turbo-charge the academies and free schools programmes and promise to put a Michaela in every town. In London, 25.7 per cent of students got top grades (7, 8 and 9) in their GCSEs last week, compared to just 16.4 per cent in the north-east. In part, that’s because the north-east hasn’t benefitted from the Conservative reforms as much as other areas. Of England’s 442 free schools, only nine are in Tyne and Wear, County Durham or Northumberland. Williamson should make addressing this inequality his priority.
There’s one more thing the government could do, which is stop local authorities from getting in the way. Katharine Birbalsingh, the inspirational head of Michaela, originally wanted to set it up in Lambeth but was stymied by the Labour-run local authority. Earlier this year, the free school chain I co-founded was approached by a local school to see if we wanted to take it over. Labour-run Ealing council, in collusion with the local NEA, stopped us. Incidentally, our school’s results this year were the best yet, with more than 50 per cent of all GCSEs graded 7, 8 or 9, compared with a national average of 20.8 per cent. Not bad, given 40 per cent of the kids are from disadvantaged backgrounds. Remove the shackles from the most successful free school and academy groups, and together we can complete this revolution.