In May, it will be 20 years since Tony Blair was elected Prime Minister on a platform that put “education, education, education” at the heart of his party’s manifesto.
How things have changed. Most people would struggle today to name one current Government educational policy, other than the mooted (and possibly doomed) expansion of grammar schools.
Given how important schools are to our future economy, one might expect deep concern about this policy vacuum. But the energy of 20 years ago has dwindled to almost nothing. And, inevitably, there is a total absence of ideas from the Opposition in an area they used to own.
Education has become a dead political subject in Whitehall. It is no longer what Mike Finn refers to as “the magic bullet – the escalator for social mobility, a vital engine of ‘human capital’”.
Many teachers will rejoice: you don’t have to look too far on social media to hear head teachers crying out to be left alone by ministers and mandarins.
Yet schools, and the profession, benefit when governments have prime ministers who are interested in education – and Secretaries of State who are committed to improving the prospects of young people. In political terms, being left alone can lead to neglect, stagnation, and decline.
Conservative governments are often misrepresented by those on the Left as being anti-teacher. But under Margaret Thatcher and Kenneth Baker the educational landscape was transformed, and much of it for the better.
It took Baker a mere three years (1986-1989) to introduce the National Curriculum, league tables, and Standard Attainment Tests (SATs); he arguably lay the foundations for later reforms, led by Andrew Adonis in Blair’s government, which gave school leaders greater autonomy over policy and budgets, and which resulted in the academies programme.
It’s a remarkable legacy – and even Blair, in his Ruskin College speech on 1996, acknowledged (not without some small degree of admiration, I suspect) that Thatcher’s government had, in school policy, moved from complacency to revolution.
Blair’s reputation may never recover from Iraq and the Chilcot Inquiry, but for those of us involved in education in the late 90s he personified hope.
I was a student teacher in 1997 working in a comprehensive in Oxfordshire and the mood began to tangibly change for the better in the staffroom, and in the education pages of The Guardian, The Independent, and the Times Educational Supplement.
Teachers suddenly felt they were valued by a country that had returned, by a landslide, a government with a clear and substantive set of policies on education. Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive (and a Labour supporter), but to be young (or a teacher) was very heaven. Things could only get better.
And they did. Blair promised a lot and, to be fair, delivered much (especially during David Blunkett’s tenure in the Department for Education). Between 1997 and 2007 funding per pupil went up by 48 per cent, there were 35,000 more teachers in classrooms, overall class sizes went down, there were 172,000 more teaching assistants, and teachers were paid (on average) 18 per cent more.
More than 1,000 new schools opened, and many more received additional funding for improvements to classrooms. Extra resources were put into Early Years education (including Sure Start). And it was Blair’s government that built on the empowering of Ofsted to make it an inspectorate that increasingly made schools, and their leaders, accountable.
Not all Blair’s policies were popular with teachers – and some academics, such as Alan Smithers, claim they were ultimately a disappointment. Perhaps Blair’s legacy will be to have made education, and in particular schools policy, a legitimate – even vital – area for governments to engage with.
Michael Gove, our last truly reformist Secretary of State, would agree. Given that the Conservatives could be in power for the next 10 years, Gove could be the last senior politician for some time to make educational reform central to government policy.
Such was the feeling stirred up by his reforms that his successor, Nicky Morgan, was appointed with the express purpose of draining the poison from the system – which led to her being bland to the point of invisibility in key areas. The current Secretary of State, Justine Greening, originally seemed charged with continuing that approach.
Until, that is, Theresa May resurrected grammar schools. An idea which was greeted with almost overwhelming criticism, even from stalwart government supporters such as Toby Young.
Others, including the seasoned educational commentator Richard Garner, suspect grammar schools are a distraction, a zombie policy, dug up to distract the commentariat from other issues that remain unresolved, either through indifference or confusion.
Perhaps this new, flat political landscape is a deliberate consequence of Gove’s frenetic time in the DfE, or perhaps it’s another Brexit aftershock.
Gove is, of course, a great admirer of Blair; he cites the former Prime Minister’s sense of urgency in key areas as a central component of his own methodology when he was in residence in Sanctuary Buildings, the DfE’s HQ.
But like Baker, Gove’s reforms were not only significant, but long-lasting: schools, as I write, are adjusting to new GCSE grading and more rigorous A-levels. The move towards a more traditional, exam-based assessment model is Gove’s work, as is the conterminous policy of downgrading gimmicky vocational qualifications.
The expansion of the academies programme, the introduction of free schools, the raising of standards in secondary schools, all have Gove’s fingerprints on them, as does the tackling of that thorniest of issues: behaviour. He approached this with the aim of empowering head teachers to take more decisive action.
He also diverted money teaching school partnerships, and pushed for independent schools to bridge the gap that exists between the two sectors. Added to this were important but underreported initiatives such as the phonics check, and the opening up of the National Pupil Database.
Many teachers hated these changes. Some will say the speed of Gove’s reforms means that schools and universities will be trying to make sense of grades for some years to come, with no clear evidence that these changes will raise achievement.
But surely this level of government involvement was better than the indifference we face now? Better to have argument and disagreement than ambivalence and apathy.
For Jonathan Simons, Director of Policy and Advocacy at the Varkey Foundation, and former Head of Education at Policy Exchange, “schools need political support to thrive, even at the cost of interference, and part of that support come from passion”.
That passion has been replaced with administration and process. And the timing could not be worse. If we look at the recent PISA test results this country has much to do if it is to improve attainment in literacy and numeracy, and in Scotland and Wales the picture looks even worse than in the rest of the country.
More than ever we need imagination, commitment, and deep involvement by government in schools. Above all, we need education, education, education to be once again at the heart of government policy.