3 November 2023

Conservatives should wear their record on education reform as a badge of honour


To paraphrase Monty Python, ‘What have the Conservatives done for us?’

The question is bound to crop up quite a lot during the upcoming general election campaign. We, the downtrodden army of Conservative activists, will be expected to provide answers on the doorsteps of Britain. In our beleaguered condition, balancing umbrellas with clipboards as we try to scribble on sodden sheets, what answer should we offer? 

A conventional motive for voting Conservative is to be allowed to spend more of your own money as you choose, rather than having it taken from you to be spent by the state. But public spending next year is due to be over 46.2% of national income – even higher than under Gordon Brown. For all the rhetoric about austerity, the reality has been profligacy. The ever-growing number of quangocrats, civil servants and NHS jobsworths spending billions each year to no beneficial effect. 

Previously we could respond to complaints about tax increases by saying a government under Ed Miliband or Jeremy Corbyn would be even more financially incontinent. But would Keir Starmer be even worse? Those who have hitherto been staunch Conservatives give a depressed shrug and contemplate abstaining. 

A property owning democracy is another traditional Tory tune. Wider opportunities to get on the housing ladder, to be independent of the state, for wealth to cascade through the generations. This is absolutely key to the aspirational Conservative message. But I’m not sure it will have much traction when canvassing next year. 

Yet there have been achievements. The most important is the improvement in school standards. The phonics revolution, pursued with obsessive and heroic dedication by the Schools Minister Nick Gibb, means our children are learning to read. 

Earlier this year, he reported, ‘The international survey of the reading ability of nine to ten-year-olds, the Pirls index, reported that England was fourth out of 43 comparable countries that tested pupils of the same age. This is a remarkable achievement and is a tribute to the dedication and commitment of the 250,000 primary school teachers who have embraced phonics.’ 

Free schools have been another success story. Michaela has been particularly inspirational in topping the league tables. Its intake has lots of underprivileged children from overcrowded council flats in Willesden. Yet imbued with a spirit of rigour and determination, those children have surpassed all comers in academic excellence. What a rebuke to the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’ that afflicts so many progressives. 

Thousands of schools have also converted to academy status and thus broken from the municipal restrictions that thwarted their development.

Failing schools have been put under new management as ‘sponsored academies’. A sort of hostile takeover bid. A new name, a new head and a new governing body. The previous culture was that bad schools should be indulged. Or to pretend that bad schools didn’t exist. Millions of children were betrayed. 

These school reforms were started when David Cameron was Prime Minister and Michael Gove was Education Secretary. But the quiet revolution has continued under their successors. We now have 701 free schools, 2,610 sponsored academies, 7,148 converter academies. 

Transparency data are also punctiliously detailed – this means that parents can see where schools in their neighbourhood are in the performance tables. 

Parent power has flourished. Choice and competition – even with the constraints of the public sector – have driven up standards. The funding follows the pupil. Schools that are a success can flourish and expand and those that fail will close – or (more likely) be taken over. 

This is the ‘big picture’, and the Conservatives should talk about it far more. It has been achieved by applying authentic Conservative principles to public policy. It is also something that might well be under threat from a Labour government given their implacable socialist hostility. 

Yet this week there was a disturbing letter in The Times from the inventor Sir James Dyson which shows a lack of consistency in pursuing this mission. 

Sir James wrote: 

‘For more than a year I have battled to donate £6m to the outstanding-rated Malmesbury Church of England Primary School, which wants to build a new science and technology centre and expand by 210 places. Land is available at no cost and 94% of local people support  the scheme. But the local authority and Department for Education say no, citing the risk of other schools having insufficient numbers. They would rather hundreds of Malmesbury’s children commute unsustainably, by bus, to outlying village schools, and deny parents the choice to send their children to this outstanding local school.’

In an accompanying news report, the paper quoted Laura Mayes, a Conservative councillor and the council cabinet member for children’s services, who said:

‘There are already sufficient places in the three local schools to cater for expected demand and so we have expressed our concern that a potential 210 additional places at Malmesbury primary school would have a severe impact on neighbouring schools, reducing their pupil numbers and putting their future sustainability at risk.’

What a depressing response. Local authorities have less power than they did to stop schools expanding. But this Council is also the planning authority – so with an extra lever to be an enemy of promise. The report in The Times adds:

‘One and a half acres of land have been allocated by the council for the school’s expansion, which has been provided by Persimmon Homes as part of their planning agreement for a housing development in the town. This agreement is in place until November 2031 but if the school has not expanded by then the land will return to the developer.’ 

This debate isn’t new. In a Yes Minister episode, Jim Hacker is challenged by his wife about his opposition to allowing good schools to expand. ‘That’d mean poaching from the other schools’, he says ‘The other schools would have to close’. 

The dialogue continues: 

‘Great! St Margaret’s could take over their buildings.’ 

‘Darling, that wouldn’t be fair’. ‘Who to?’ 

‘The teachers in the schools that had to close’. 

‘Good ones could teach at the popular schools’. 

‘What about the bad teachers? It wouldn’t be fair on them’. 

The Conservatives need to be on the right side of this argument. Some say there is no ‘need’ for good schools to expand, or new ones to open, as there are already surplus places at bad schools. Would they be happy for their own children to attend these bad schools for the sake of the administrative convenience of the bureaucrats and the career advantage of the deficient teachers? 

School choice can be a popular Conservative theme. It should be pursued with boldness and determination. The communications team at CCHQ should talk about it incessantly. Yet the apparent ingratitude shown to Sir James in Wiltshire threatens to undermine it. I hope it is speedily rectified.

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Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.