Robert Leitch is a secondary school teacher.
The early exchanges of the election battle have been dominated by Tory attempts to frame the public debate as a choice between Conservative competency vs. Labour chaos. This electoral centrepiece is predominately focused, quite rightly, on the economy. Yet, there are other areas of public life, which are poised on a knife-edge. Education is one such example of a vital, and wholly English, public service at risk of a depressing Labour retreat to chaos should Ed Miliband be handed the keys to Downing Street in May.
Back in 1997, I was heading towards the end of my primary education, and by 2006 my own schooling was complete. Having been educated during the Blair years, I saw first hand the early exam entries, the modular system of assessment, multiple re-takes, the lack of emphasis on writing, spelling or grammar, the lowering of grade boundaries, the rise of bizarre new subjects, the abuse of coursework and the ‘bums on seats’ mentality that many schools had towards packing their students off to university, regardless of their suitability or skill settings.
The end result of the Labour era, despite the substantial investment of public money, makes for pretty dire reading. A brief glance back to the international rankings in 2010 reminds us that we were 28th out of 65 countries for maths and 25th for reading, having fallen behind countries such as Poland and Norway. A fifth of primary school children left without reaching basic levels of literacy and numeracy, and up to two-fifths finished education without five good GCSEs. At the same time, grade inflation was perversely distorting the upper end of the system, creating a wide-spread public and workplace concern that qualifications were being ‘dumbed down’ and that students were leaving education ill-equipped for the world of work.
Fast-forward to 2015, and as a secondary school teacher and middle leader myself, I know that those who ran the system under Labour (many of my current colleagues!) did so with only genuine motives. Indeed, there are many who still long for a return to modular exams and multiple entries, firm in the belief that such casual examinations enable students to fulfil their potential. In their quest for equality of outcome, those at the top of education presided over the diminishing, dumbing down and degrading of school standards, expectations and outcomes.
In order for education to keep up with the world for which we are preparing young people, schools need to be flexible. Immediately, we can point to our Party’s liberation of schools from local authority control, enabling the creation of education trusts and providers (e.g Harris, AET, Leigh, Oasis, ARK etc) who are able to forge links between different partner schools both in local clusters and further afield.
In some cases, this allows differing schools within the same ‘educational family’ to offer different forms of education – technical and vocational at one, academic at another, etc. Likewise, in some cases, schools through their academy chains are able to offer all-through education starting at 3 and ending at 18, within the same Trust. As all Conservatives know, the principle of freedom, be in it business or any other sector, leads to innovation, creativity and flexibility which State-dominated sectors cannot match.
Despite the frequent headline grabbing speeches at teaching conferences, I have yet to meet a head teacher who would reverse the academy trend, or give up their newly-found independence, particularly their control over staffing and budgets. What would Labour do if elected? According to their manifesto, they would ‘introduce new local Directors of School Standards’ – not quite a return to local authority control but an added layer of unnecessary bureaucracy diminishing the freedoms outlined above.
What about free schools? Popular with growing academy chains, community groups, charities, parents and businesses, over 400 have opened under our Party over the past five years. What is Labour’s plan? Alas, the Labour Party would effectively abolish the free school initiative altogether, motivated only by a desire to centralise State control of the system.
Under Michael Gove’s leadership, our Party also reformed teaching and learning, introducing linear courses with final exams, abolishing marking by assessment, creating a new grading system and delivering a new national curriculum, all designed to stretch and challenge our young people in an unashamed attempt to make subjects simply more demanding. It is only when challenged, that any of us rise to the top of our abilities and our young people need to be challenged if they are to be work-ready upon leaving school.
Reading through the comment sections on ConHome, it’s always quickly apparent that many members feel as though our Party could have gone further, reformed more widely, been more radical over the past five years. Yet the Conservative family should be in no doubt that we have fundamentally changed the education playing field for the better since 2010. What would a Miliband education system look like? The abolition of free schools, the imposition of another layer of bureaucracy and more State control over head teachers up and down the land.
If nothing else motivates you to get out on the streets, to canvass, leaflet or GOTV come May, let it be our Party’s radical record on education. For on May 7th, we will all face a stark choice in education – the stakes are high; it’s a choice between Conservative rigour or Labour retreat, or quite simply, competence v chaos.