Andy Burnham recently pledged to turn the clock back on the successful reforms launched initially under Margaret Thatcher and return control of schools to local authorities.
He may be trying to steal back left wing territory from Jeremy Corbyn, but the ideas put forward are genuinely radical and will gain interest from voters dissatisfied with the present education system.
The left have created an education system which recent UCL research suggests has led to a shadow brain drain, where knowledge economy snobbery has created a skills crisis and where social mobility has all but died.
Conservatives cannot be comfortable with this disaster and, instead of fussing around the periphery as Nicky Morgan is doing, should propose to overhaul the entire system.
1) Establish a British system of school vouchers and make state-run schools into state-sponsored schools
Britain’s private schools constantly outdo their state counterparts in all aspects of education, but are berated for not doing enough to support the state’s system.
Sir Michael Wilshaw appears to expect the already pressured private sector to come to the aid of a failing and bloated state sector when there is barely any state provision to the private sector.
Meanwhile, leftist ideologues likes of Burnham and Corbyn refuse to understand that the wealthy will always arrange the best education for their children, whether through moving to the best catchment areas, hiring tutors, or sending their children to foreign boarding schools.
It’s the poorest in society (particularly children from dysfunctional homes) suffer the most when poor state education is provided.
A school voucher system would directly benefit the poorest and provide a positive means to achieving greater education equality.
Letting the funding follow the pupil, in the region of £5,000 on average throughout England, would force the state sector to compete for pupils, which would have the natural effect of raising standards and quality.
A full voucher system and a conversion of state-run schools into independent state-sponsored schools would recognise that parents are in the best position to make decisions over their children’s education, as they have the greatest interest in the children succeeding.
2) Immediately establish new grammar schools
Is it any wonder that private school alumni now dominate public life when methods for social mobility have been hollowed out by the left?
Establishing new, academically rigorous grammar schools with a set of common entrance papers age 13/14 (the end of prep school), rather than 11, would provide opportunities for those clearly gifted with academic ability to be challenged.
Tony Blair demonstrated some appreciation for such rigour with New Labour’s specialist schools programme but, perversely, the idea of recognising interdisciplinary academic passion and ability was rejected as elitist.
Tristram Hunt may bemoan that the remaining grammar schools have become inaccessible to the poorest but that is perhaps because there are so few of them, in so few areas and children are taught in the state’s primary schools to think collectively not as individuals.
To avoid the risks of a ‘middle class swarm’, a new set of grammar schools should be established in the poorest inner-city and rural areas to start with, and a focus made on pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds gaining entry.
3) Give all state schools the freedom to charge limited top-up fees
The reality is that private schools have far greater success as a result of two clear factors: their ability to raise greater revenue through fees, and parents feeling a sense of ownership in their children’s education.
There is clearly greater pressure on the pupil to succeed and to perform, and greater pressure on the school to inspire, to challenge and to provide: ‘I am paying for this so deliver’ is a far better social attitude than the statist ‘it’s free so don’t complain’.
Taxation as the sole method for school funding does not provide a sense of ownership in the way that a direct payment is able to, as there is no direct financial relationship between the receiver and provider and no ability for parents to refuse to pay where the service is sub-standard.
Were top up fees coupled with school vouchers, parents would feel in direct control of their children’s schooling, forcing the cosy education establishment to wake up or shut down.
Top up fees would also provide a much need cash injection into many of Britain’s schools, which languish behind private schools in nearly every single way.
Our education desires will never be fulfilled through the state alone leaving many state pupils to suffer the over populated classrooms, the short days and the poor facilities. It is not unreasonable to ask those who can afford to make a small monetary sacrifice to do so.
An income threshold, for example £26,000 (the average UK salary), and initial annual limits in the low to mid hundreds would revolutionise our entire education system and provide presently restricted opportunities to the many.
4) Abolish local education authorities and convert all local authority schools into free schools or academies
Local authority schools are remnants of the statist ideology Burnham and Corbyn long to resurrect. Having local authority schools creates segregation within the state education system, with such schools lacking the freedom which free schools, academies and private schools enjoy.
There is simply no case for having this system in place when it is purely designed to give councils more power, not to provide the best education for pupils.
Similarly, local education authorities serve little purpose than expensively pushing money from one place to another and keeping part of it in the process. Teachers rather than bureaucrats are far more effective in controlling their budgets, as the success of private education demonstrates.
LEAs are superfluous to the modern education system and a forward thinking Conservative Party should abolish them.
5) Give equal recognition to the arts
The arts are critical to education, yet are completely side-lined in Britain’s overtly science biased exam system. This is clearly evident in both the English Baccalaureate and constant government obsession with the STEM subjects.
The Government is betraying the poorest in society, who have little access in education to appreciate the beauty of the world or engage their creativity, and often feel excluded from the middle class dominated arts.
To end this, a compulsion to study the visual arts, music, drama or dance at GCSE/IGCSE level should be implemented and a slightly more formalised Baccalaureate system should be introduced giving equal recognition to the sciences, humanities and arts.
Such a system could also incorporate recognition for a personal research project and extra-curricular activity similar to the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, though individual subject qualifications should still be awarded to avoid the negative effects of systems like the Welsh Diploma or the US High School Diploma.
Broader exam reform such as single exam boards per subject, a system of internal marking and external validation of exam papers, and a wider look at the ineffectiveness of current exams systems to inspire and educate should be considered.
Ultimately we all suffer from a poor education system, be it through greater crime rates, a dramatically weaker, more divided society, or higher taxes to fund welfare and dysfunctional families.
These reforms would make clear that the Conservative Party is the party of opportunity, aspiration and the working poor.