14 June 2023

Could the looming schools crisis become a big election issue?


Received wisdom tells us that schools will not be a core electoral issue when Rishi Sunak goes to the country, probably next year. Most education policy wonks and pollsters (I am both) are at pains to explain that we shouldn’t expect a repeat of Tony Blair’s ‘education, education, education’ sloganeering.

Schools are not only better than they have been for some time – ergo, electoral salience drifts away – and pale into insignificance compared to the many overlapping crises we face: the exploding mortgage market, the failing NHS, sky-high energy costs and so on…

At first glance they are right. Schools are, in many ways, much improved. Thanks to a combination of New Labour and Gove-era reforms, standards are climbing. The international league tables confirm it, and polling (including from my firm, Public First) suggests that parents are way too content with their kids’ schooling to have education at the front of mind when they cast a ballot.

The logical extension of this argument is, therefore, that Sir Keir Starmer’s forthcoming speech on ‘Opportunity’ (one of his ‘five missions’) is rather less important than his big set-pieces on the NHS, the environment or the economy. There are few votes to win here, some cynics would conclude.

But that is to make the fatal assumption that nothing will change between now and the general election in (probably) autumn of next year. That is to suggest that the current state of schools is immutable.

I don’t think it is.

There are lots of things going wrong, and they’re all going wrong at the same time (also known as the ‘wrong time’ if you’re a Conservative electoral strategist).

Firstly, behaviour is worsening. This is hard to measure, but if you talk to as many teachers as I do, you’ll hear the same thing time and again: since Covid, more and more students can’t or won’t do as they’re told. This is probably related to the after effects of the pandemic lockdowns, a deterioration in both mental health and youth mental health services and the domestic chaos that inevitably follows in the wake of a cost of living squeeze. But whatever the reason, it’s happening.

Secondly, teachers can’t be found. As a result of both a recruitment and retention crisis, driven by low pay and frankly mid-20th century working conditions, there is a dramatic shortage of teacher of all kinds in our classrooms. Heads report that recruitment this year is worse than it has ever been and it’s harder and harder to guarantee that there’s a qualified adult in every classroom. Ensuring a supply of teachers is one of the Department for Education’s core responsibilities.

Finally, in an echo of the fag-end of the Major government, school buildings are beginning to crumble. A combination of shabby commissioning under New Labour and lack of investment under the Tories means that cracks are, quite literally, beginning to appear in our primaries and secondaries in a way not seen for a generation.

Bundle this altogether and you have ‘teacherless classrooms with kids running amok in schools buildings that are crumbling’. It might not be a fair portrayal of the reality in most classroom, but it’s not a pretty picture for a government that will have been in power for, by then, 14 years – and one that originally put education squarely at the centre of its offer. Remember Michael Gove and David Cameron touring the news studios before the 2010 election pointing to our plummeting place in the Pisa league tables? Or this 2010 White Paper on ‘The Importance of Teaching’?

This could prove an open goal for Sir Keir when he makes his ‘Opportunity mission’ speech, although it may have come too soon, before schools really start shedding tiles and the teacher shortages bite even deeper.

If that proves to be the case, the Tories have time to shore up their position. I can’t see it happening though – the Conservatives really do appear to have run out of steam on education. There’s little momentum behind fresh reform or appetite to set out a positive vision in this area.

Maybe, after all, we will see Starmer standing under the slogan ‘schools, schools, schools’ as he launches Labour’s election campaign next year. Here’s hoping.

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Ed Dorrell is a partner at Public First.

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