Most people who express concern about the Labour Party winning the general election do so because they believe they will mismanage the economy. This is indeed a reasonable concern, but increasingly I find myself worrying about the possible ruination of the one area where the Conservative Party has undoubtedly begun to make progress; in education.
I despair at Ed Miliband’s apparent lack of interest and feel the frustration swell at the thought of the honourable Dr Tristram Julian William Hunt becoming Education Secretary. I worry about the apparent desire to reverse the necessary reforms, the instinct for centralisation and the symbiotic relationship with the teaching unions with all their rigidly ideological and regressive beliefs.
In education the Conservative Party has been at its most reformist and radical. It simply cannot be argued that this was unnecessary. The English education system has been in decay for decades and has consistently failed the poor and left thousands of children ill equipped for their adult lives. This has not been dealt with in the past five years, the problems run deep, the solutions take time and there is still much to be done. The reforming spirit must continue.
Decades of grade inflation muddied the waters and made it more difficult to assess the true extent of the failures of our education system. Defenders of the consensus pointed to ever improving GCSE results as a sign of success, but this did not match up with a steep decline in literacy and numeracy standards or the complaints from employers and universities about the low calibre of school leavers.
The PISA rankings of 2009 showed that England had slipped from 7th to 25th place in literacy, 8th to 28th place in mathematics and 4th to 16th place in science under the Labour Government; absymal. All the while, exam results were telling us that pupils were actually improving. A fifth of children were leaving primary school without having reached a basic level of literacy and numeracy. Almost two fifths finished their education without five good GCSEs – even in the era of inflation and dumbing down.
“Education, education, education,” so the Labour mantra went, but despite a vast increase in spending there was no improvement in pupil learning outcomes. In fact, our teenagers were falling down the league tables of the world and our education system was becoming even more of an apartheid that served the wealthy and betrayed the poor.
In an increasingly globalised world we need to educate our young people so that they can compete at home and abroad. The Labour Party failed in this endeavour. Young adults lacking skills and lagging behind international competitors are not equipped to achieve their potential. The talent pool of young British people entering the workforce has shrunk. This is deeply concerning.
We are papering over the cracks with mass immigration, importing workers to do the unskilled work that our own people reject in favour of welfare, creating a listless and bitter underclass. Migrants fill huge skill gaps created by the failures of our education system. Britons are now in a global competition, and they are falling behind.
If our youngsters are not properly educated, employers cannot be blamed for opting for immigrants with more skills and a better work ethic. Far too many young applicants turn up for interview lacking the skills to do the job, or when they do get a job they prove to be unreliable, lazy and complacent.
This is why the education system needed (and still needs) far-reaching reform – and the Conservative Party should be unashamed about this. Indeed, it is a shame it isn’t defending its reforms to the hilt. It was gutless of Cameron to sack Gove because of the results of a few focus groups. He opted to keep education quiet despite it being the best thing the Government has done and in dire need of defending from a prospective Labour government.
Andrew Adonis set the academy reforms in motion despite opposition from the left and the teaching unions. He was reshuffled after only three years. Michael Gove put rocket boosters under the academy program, by the end of 2010 more academies had been created in one year of a Conservative government than the previous seven under Labour. Academies are given more freedom from the dead hand of the local authority; they have the autonomy and aspirations of the independent sector. Secondary schools that convert to academies are performing at a higher level than other schools.
Central to the reforms has been to raise the level of ambition, to expect more from children. This is key; children from beginning to end are expected to perform at a higher level. If you raise expectations they will they will jump over the raised bar. The reforms were based on a highly admirable idea that Britain can do better. Our globally admired public schools know that if you expect highly of children they will perform better. The ethos of aspiration and vigour is what is needed in the state sector, not a culture of low expectations and low standards.
Free schools are offering choice and competition; they are injecting diversity into the system and offering citizens the opportunity to set up their own institutions. Only 10 per cent of schools are rated “outstanding” across the nation, but 24 per cent of free schools that have been inspected by Ofsted have been given that rating. Research shows that the high standards of free schools (and academies) are raising standards of poorly performing schools, both primary and secondary, in the communities in which they operate.
In five years we have seen a million fewer children being educated in failing schools. Standards are rising across the board. These education reforms need to be taken through and, I would contend, taken even further. Unfortunately, the spectre of a Labour government looms large. Our education system is under threat.
The honourable Dr Tristram Julian William Hunt is under pressure from the unions to reverse the autonomy that academies and free schools enjoy, despite the evidence that schools and pupils benefit from these freedoms. Indeed, Miliband has said that free schools are the “opposite of what we need’ and has recently stated his desire to impose a “proper local authority framework for all schools”.
Labour have repeatedly pledged to kill off free schools and prevent any new ones opening with the shadow education secretary arrogantly dismissing them, with a characteristic sneer, as “vanity projects for West London yummy mummies.” Despite the evidence the impending crisis of place shortages, and the evidence that shows free schools raise the standards of local schools, Labour does not think new schools should be built in areas where already existing schools are undersubscribed. As free schools are eight times more likely to be located in the most deprived areas, this is specifically detrimental to the children of the poor.
The Labour Party will conserve a situation in which poor people have to attend poor schools. These restrictions would deny the choice of a new school to the two million children currently being educated in below average schools that have surplus places. These schools have surplus places because they are poor and parents are sending their children elsewhere. Parents should be given choice and poor schools need competition to drive them to improve.
This is without even mentioning the crucial need for many new schools to cope with a growing population. The Labour Party had an open border policy which saw net foreign migration of 3.6 million yet they closed, on average, 126 schools a year. Now they object to the creation of new places with free schools, it is bad policy based on corrupt ideology, plain and simple.
The honourable Dr Tristram Julian William Hunt was privately educated and was taught by specialist teachers without Qualified Teaching status, but does not want this freedom for the state sector, or for poorer children. The unions want as many teachers as possible to be churned through their favoured training programmes and are aghast at the thought of their pernicious influence on the education system being weakened. Thus Labour will throw them some red meat by making it illegal for taxpayer funded schools to employ teachers that do not have Qualified Teacher Status.
Labour Party policy is created under pressure by the unions; gone is any reforming spirit that briefly flickered under Andrew Adonis. They are against competition, against giving schools freedom, against autonomy for headteachers and against offering opportunity to the poor. They cannot be trusted not to be a regressive influence.
Ed Balls attempted to make academies follow that National Curriculum; will this centralising instinct rear its ugly head if they get back in power? Ed Miliband seems completely impassionate about education, can he be relied upon to resist the influence of the hard left of his party that despise academies and free schools and have heads full of wrongheaded ideas? I fear not.
Without reform, our education system would be in the gutter, along with the Labour-run system in Wales. This is why David Cameron was wrong to retreat from the battle by sacking Michael Gove and muting the issue. The Conservative Party reforms represented a stride forward and they should champion and defend them. Labour and the teaching unions offer state provision on a take-it-or-leave-it basis and will conserve failure. They will take us backwards and fail our children.