Fraser Nelson

Cameron may throw like a girl but his education policy is transformative

Cameron may throw like a girl but his education policy is transformative
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Oh the weather outside may be frightful, but David Cameron went ahead with his education speech today - a subject on which he doesn't say enough, in my view, because there is so much to say. The policy he had to launch was a Carol Vorderman-led maths review, but there were plenty of other aspects to his speech. Extracts below, with my take after:-


DC: We envisage academy status – with all the freedoms it brings to generate success freedoms which have been used brilliantly here will become the norm for state schools. These big structural changes are crucial if we’re to have the sort of revolutionary change I think is necessary to make our schools the best in the world. 

FN: Cameron does not exaggerate when he says “revolutionary”. He’s talking about cutting state schools free from Local Education Authorities (LEAs) – the education barons who saw off Thatcher, Baker, Blair and Adonis. That this is precisely what Blair said in the introduction to his Education White Paper in October 2005– which was later diluted with concessions demanded by Labour rebels. The LEA barons have a very powerful grip on the Labour party – but won’t be able to stop Cameron. But why only “envisage?” This is radicalism you have to do on day one. As Blair found to his cost, it’s no use trying to push through radical reform when your political capital has been diminished by years in office.

DC: But these changes are very far from being the limit of our plans.

FN: But they may as well be. As Kenneth Baker and Andrew Adonis proved, you just can’t improve state schools from the centre – the LEAs resist change. So we can happily disregard what Cameron would like to see happening in other state schools: neither he nor any PM would be able to implement it. Also there is a paradox: if they’re independent, as he said in the above paragraph, they would be listening to parents not the likes of him. This is tricky for Cameron because he needs to have an agenda for campaign purposes. So here it is:-

DC: From day one, a Conservative Government will launch the most far-reaching, thorough and zealous commitment to improving standards in all our schools. That means a commitment to discipline. So when a head teacher says a disruptive pupil has got to go – we’ll make sure they’ll go.

FN: Oh no they won’t. Cameron wants to abolish school expulsion tribunals, but this would be illegal under Article Six of the ECHR - “right to a fair trial”. Unless Cameron passes a beefed up British Bill of Rights into law and – crucially - declares it senior to the ECHR then he can forget about this.

DC: So when the educational establishment…

FN: I like his language: this is indeed a battle against the establishment. Cameron must, however, realise that this means disempowering ministers – so when he becomes the establishment, he too can go to hell with his Harry Enfield style “You Don’t Want to Do It Like That” advice to English teachers about synthetic phonics (which he again dispensed after the press conference).

DC:…tries to drive through more changes like getting rid of proper subject teaching changes which will only ensure our children end up learning less then we will stop them in their tracks.

FN: Unless you have made schools independent of political interference – in which case you will just have to trust the newly empowered parents to stop dodgy exam boards - by putting their kids in for other exams.

DC: The argument for the importance of maths is often made in terms of what it means to a person’s intellectual development. The fact that basic numeracy is not a nice-to-have, it’s a must have. From checking your bank balance, to doing the weekly shop or making the most of the sales being able to add, subtract, times and divide is something we rely on often without thinking about it.

FN: It also means being able to calculate what the National Debt would be if you increase government spending by less than Labour, when Labour would only increase it by 1%. Answer: you still hit a trillion pounds. I do hope Cameron has done this piece of maths by now.

DC I am delighted to announce that Carol Vorderman has agreed to lead a new Conservative Party Maths Taskforce. Carol is the perfect choice. She’s a well-respected public figure who not only knows maths inside out, but also how to extend that knowledge to a wider audience in an interesting and inspirational way.

FN: And she has zero educational experience, so why put her in charge of what deciding what maths teachers should do? If Gordon Brown had today announced a maths review led by a comely TV personality, CoffeeHousers would be savaging him. When she said afterwards that she felt “sorry for the children” let down by Labour, it probably gave Cameron his headline. But having a TV presenter lead an education review looks gimmicky.

DC: And Carol will leave no stone unturned in the task I have set her: to make maths teaching in Britain’s state schools as good as anywhere else in the world.

FN: Sigh. Being super numerate, as she undoubtedly is, doesn’t mean that she has any expertise in education.

DC: We don't have to argue about whether the Government has devalued exams. We know it has because studies have shown that the same performance which would have secured just a D grade in A-Level Maths in 1997 now secures you a B.

FN: Very important point here – he’s referring to Durham University’s studies. Good piece in TES about this recently – here.

DC: And we know the top independent schools are abandoning GCSEs for new tougher international exams such as the international GCSE – while state schools are forced to stick to the standard GCSE. This is absurd and has got to change. Every school in Britain should be able to do the same high quality exams that now only private schools are allowed to do so we really stretch our children.

FN: Again, genuine radicalism. But you have to get this past the LEAs, who may ban schools from giving pupils this choice. A classic symptom of the problem of reform in Britain: central government can give freedoms but the system fights you. So,GPs refuse to tell patients they have the right to go to a private hospital, etc.


All told, I suspect one story will emerge from this – Cameron throws snowballs like a girl (see the video below). But look closely, ignore the gimmicks, and there is an agenda that will genuinely and radically transform education. Complete what Blair wanted to do by setting schools free, allow them to compete for the right to educate children and then you will make parents the tsars. And then, all else will follow.

PS Coffee House readers might enjoy this - a great essay  by the Nobel Prize Winner Richard Feynman, who won the Nobel Prize, on his experience with the corruption of the curriculum. It shows that the problem of the dumbing down of maths and science, discussed by Cameron and Gove today, was already underway decades ago...


Written byFraser Nelson

Fraser Nelson is the editor of The Spectator. He is also a columnist with The Daily Telegraph, a member of the advisory board of the Centre for Social Justice and the Centre for Policy Studies.

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