The looming clash between the Government and the trades unions over re-opening primary schools is a grim reminder of the unfinished state of the Tory schools revolution.
In 2010, the Conservatives entered office with education reform at the heart of their offer. Michael Gove’s ambitious plans to reshape the state education sector survived the Coalition negotiations and became one of the most controversial – and for reformist Tories, exciting – planks of the Government’s programme.
Yet after Gove was moved from the Education brief by David Cameron, who had his eye on the 2015 election, the party’s school reform agenda gradually lost momentum.
First, Cameron himself spent the last year of his ministry consumed by the European question. Then came the ascension of Theresa May, and with it a different education agenda with a greater focus on selective and faith schools – although this too had petered out by 2018.
By the time of the 2019 election the party had another leader, and Boris Johnson’s manifesto contained only a single page on education. This was mostly comprised of spending commitments. The most ambitious aspects of the Tory education agenda, such as academies, free schools, and T Levels, received barely a mention.
This is a story which has been told before. In 2014, Robert Peal published Progressively Worse: The Burden of Bad Ideas in British Schools, an engaging account both of the riotous outbreak of ‘trendy teaching’ in the 1960s and the unsuccessful attempts of both Labour and Conservative governments to turn the tide.
For the Tories, the common thread running through all their various counter-offensives was that education policy was simply never a priority. Even on the rare occasion when the brief was handed to a minister possessed of both the intelligence and energy for the task, they were seldom in post long enough to make a difference.
Long before Michael Gove coined the phrase ‘the Blob’, the extraordinary power of the permanent education establishment was widely recognised – hence Sir Humphry’s speech to Bernard in Yes, Prime Minister that the task of the Civil Service was to sell ministers on trades union policies, not vice versa.
Peal’s book was published in 2014, and did not cover the last ten years of Tory-led government. But for his optimism about Gove’s agenda, surely an updated edition would have to say that history had rhymed once again. The Government got distracted, and progress stalled.
Yet this crisis is illustrating just how important structural reform to state education really is.
It is surely no coincidence that it’s the major academy chains – Reach 2, Harris, Oasis and GEP – which are backing the Government’s plans to restart schools, alongside the headteachers’ unions. The founder of Oasis, Steve Chalke, has gone so far as to attack opposition as ‘middle class’, highlighting the disproportionate impact extended closure will have on children from less advantaged backgrounds.
The opposition, meanwhile, is being spearheaded by the teachers’ unions, with the support of the British Medical Association, both of which have clashed with the Conservatives over the past ten years, as well as Labour-dominated Liverpool City Council.
Looking at that line up, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this is a straightforwardly political conflict. Not political in a strictly party sense – former education secretaries from both Labour and Tory governments are lining up behind Gavin Williamson – but in the sense described by Peal, of a long-standing battle between Parliament and the Blob for control of our schools.
This feels especially true when other countries are starting to reopen schools, the Government’s scientific advisers are insisting the plans are safe and there is plenty of evidence about the long-term damage that interrupted schooling can do to a child’s life chances. What happened to ‘following the science’?
There is also an emerging body of expert opinion that young children are not only at extremely low risk of contracting a serious case of Covid-19, but they’re also unlikely to pass it to adults.
Will it be 100% risk free? Almost certainly not. It is always possible to demand more certainty than anyone can offer. But if a treatment or vaccine for coronavirus really is a year or more away, and it well might be, then we don’t have the luxury of complete safety. We are going to need to find ways to make the economy and society function alongside the disease.
Lockdown was supposed to be about holding down infection rates until the Government could increase the NHS’s intensive care capacity and, ideally, develop the infrastructure and technology needed to operate a better-targeted track-and-trace approach to controlling Covid-19. It was never about holding infection rates at lockdown levels until a cure arrives.
That means we’re going to need to find a way to make schooling in the time of corona work. The question is simply how long we leave it, and how far back we let some children slip, before that happens.
And hopefully, when the immediate crisis is passed, Gavin Williamson and Boris Johnson will have been spurred to once again take up the torch of school reform.
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