This is the fourth of our Pinning Down Farage articles, which scrutinise and expose the failings of UKIP policy. Click here to read the rest of the series.
Having covered the economy, the EU referendum and defence, our search for UKIP policies today continues with education – an area that is perhaps even more emotive for the insurgents than for other parties.
As ever, it’s a complex hunt to find out what the people’s army actually thinks on either issue – as discussed before in this series, sometimes a bit of vagueness suits their purposes better than providing detail on which they might be pinned down. But with a bit of searching we can get an idea of where they’ve come from and roughly where they appear to be heading now.
As in other areas, the now-ditched 2010 manifesto made a broadly radical rightist pitch on education at every level:
- Make all FE colleges and Universities independent charities.
- Replace student loans with a Student Voucher/Training Voucher entitling all citizens over 18 to a course which can be taken at any time in their adult life. This would be free, along the lines of the old grant system.
- Issue all parents with a School Voucher, equivalent to the average value of state education and redeemable in any state, faith or private school of their choice.
- ‘Scrap the nonsensical target of making 50 per cent of school leavers go to university’. [This was intended to imply a reduction to a level below 50 per cent – an aim explicitly stated in the working group document ‘Education: Time to Come Clean‘].
- Replace Local Education Authorities with ‘directly elected County Education Boards made up of educational professionals and councillors’. [It’s not quite clear how these would be both directly elected and exclusively composed of ‘educational professionals and councillors’].
- Scrap all sex and relationship education for all children under the age of 10.
- Allow ‘charitable associations, parental co-operatives, not-for-profit and profit-making private companies, partnerships or individuals’ to run schools.
- Abolish Ofsted and replace it with an ‘independent Educational Inspectorate made up of experienced teachers’. [This description, amusingly, is essentially what Ofsted is, so I’m unable to ascertain exactly how the two would differ].
- Keep existing Grammar Schools and ‘encourage the creation of new Grammar Schools and specialist schools’.
That last point is, of course, UKIP’s policy sweet spot. Whilst their parallel pursuits of principle, nostalgia and opportunism often collide, in a Venn diagram of the three Grammar Schools would sit smack in the middle. Principle, because it speaks to their declared interest in meritocracy. Nostalgia, because it has more than a whiff of the 1950s Enid Blytonism into which they sometimes lapse. Opportunism because it was an early example of Cameron’s contentious ‘modernisation’ programme – in fact, aside from UKIP’s founding by those displeased at the Maastricht Treaty, it is perhaps the earliest example of an issue used mainly to hoover up ex-Conservatives.
More of Grammar Schools later. More broadly, while Farage has since denounced the 2010 manifesto it’s notable that several of the ideas are similar to the Gove revolution pursued in the Department of Education. While Local Education Authorities still exist, schools now have the option to escape them. Charitable associations, parents, not-for-profits and partnerships can indeed set up their own Free Schools. Schools have greater liberty to set their curricula. Obviously, no-one can be sufficiently perfect to satisfy UKIP (that’s essentially the whole point of the gig) but there have at least been some reforms for them to smile about.
Like much of the old manifesto, its education policies technically persisted until the whole shebang was publicly abandoned over the summer – certainly at the time of the 2013 local elections, school vouchers and university grants were featuring as part of the UKIP policy pitch.
Since the slate was wiped clean, we’ve learned a little about how things are changing. The Policies for People summary of announcements from their conference in Doncaster gives some headlines; the notes from the Doncaster speech by Paul Nuttall MEP, their education spokesman and Deputy Leader, fleshes them out a little more; the video of his full speech, for which there is unfortunately no transcript, adds yet more.
Nuttall did acknowledge Gove’s successes in secondary education: “academies and free schools are heading in the right direction” he said, perhaps a little grudgingly.
Here are his key points and proposals:
- Immigration is to blame for the lack of school places. This may be part of the issue – but sadly there’s no solution beyond closing the borders, which would do nothing whatsoever to change the numbers of children of migrants already here, or to provide extra school places to accommodate them.
- ‘Introduce an apprenticeship qualification equivalent to four GCSEs’. As one MP said to me recently, “everyone loves apprenticeships”. It’s a universal positive in politics at the moment, something that sounds great. And it is a positive in practice, too, if done correctly. But simply declaring that a qualification will hold a certain value relative to GCSEs is not the same as making it do so – the blizzard of vocational qualifications introduced by Labour were all meant to have a good weighting in those terms, but many did not achieve it in the eyes of employers.
- End grade inflation by allowing only one exam board for GCSEs and one for A Levels. Presumably, Nuttall missed a variety of people spending this summer complaining that Gove’s reforms had made exams harder and ended grade inflation. He is pledging to end a problem that is already being dealt with effectively. Even if it was not, instituting a monopoly in exam-setting is perhaps the worst way to achieve it. If you want to address the problem of schools seeking to artificially inflate their results by picking easier exams, the solution is to give parents the freedom to choose the school their child goes to – those schools lacking academic rigour would swiftly lose out to others offering a good education. There was a time when UKIP would have realised consumer choice and producer competition, properly combined, are more effective than monopolies – apparently no longer.
- A petition of 25 per cent of parents and governors could trigger an Ofsted inspection. First, apparently Ofsted is now safe from the closure threatened in 2010. Second, this is a development of a policy first floated at the last election – though then the petition only needed 10 per cent of parents, and now it’s apparently intended to prevent a Trojan Horse-style takeover plot. It seems a reasonable idea to me – a form of recall for schools, in effect.
- No tuition fees for gifted students if they study science, technology, maths or medicine. ‘How will we pay for it?’ asked Nuttall. A good question; he answered it by pledging to scrap the Blair-era target of 50 per cent of young people going to university. And yet, we are around that 50 per cent figure now (not for 18-year-olds but for 18-30s – which contrary to Nuttall’s speech was Blair’s actual measure). Is the intention to stop some of those young people being allowed to go, even if they currently pass the academic criteria? If so, why not say which people will be denied the opportunity?
- Scrap ‘nonsensical’ university courses. It’s hard to see how a UKIP government could actually do this. Evidently they don’t intend to make universities independent charities any more, as they did in 2010 – presumably they now plan to take direct managerial control. The only other way to dictate course content would be to ban people from getting student loans to do courses a UKIP Education Secretary deems nonsensical. Either route involves a lot more centralised government than UKIP tend to claim they want.
- Make EU students ‘pay their way’. In practice, this means putting EU students on the same financial footing as non-EU students – something which is essentially a corollary of leaving the EU, so no great surprise.
- What of Free Schools? Troublingly, the answer is ‘who knows’? Policies for People says that ‘UKIP supports the principle of Free Schools that are open to the whole community and uphold British values’. But supporting a principle is not the same as defending and promoting them in practice. On the ground, UKIP have in some places been touting themselves as the outlet for protest against new Free Schools. The Gove revolution is working – will they guarantee to support its survival?
- “A grammar school in every town”. Academic selection is, as in 2010, their central education pitch – and one with which no doubt many Tories have plenty of sympathy. Nuttall’s argument that the comprehensive system has failed kids who are gifted but poor has much merit to it. But precisely what UKIP mean by their pledge is somewhat less clear. Policies for People says ‘Existing schools will be allowed to apply to become grammar schools’, which is rather different to Nuttall’s guarantee of one in “every single town in this country”. Adrian Hilton, a regular ConHome contributor and education academic, has pressed the party on the practicalities for the last 18 months as part of his research without much joy, asking them: “Who adjudicates [school applications to become grammars]? What admissions policy? What appeal process? What if no schools opt to become secondary moderns?” Answer came there none, but these are serious points. What if one school in every town fails to apply to become a grammar, or too few pass the as yet unknown criteria? What if insufficient numbers apply to become the technical or secondary modern schools needed to complete a selective system? Would a UKIP government embark on a building programme to plug any gaps? By which year should we expect to see one in every town?
Nuttall is undoubtedly a more savvy operator than some of his colleagues (few of whom are prone to ask themselves the necessary question “How will we pay for it?” and then actually try to answer, for example). But a clever politician in opposition isn’t always the same thing as a good planner for the practicalities of government. Attention-grabbing policies are easier to announce than they are to implement. With grammar schools in particular – UKIP’s flagship education policy – there are many more questions than the bold pledge might imply.
If the ‘new politics’ is to mean more than simply promising the moon on a stick, those questions must be answered – with detail on how it could be done.