Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.
A senior, kind and decent MP colleague, whom I respect enormously, said to me the other day: “Rob, you are right to campaign for radical reforms – but don’t forget to mention the good things the Government is doing as well”. After arguing with her a little (that part of the identity is the only clue I will give you), stating I had defended the Prime Minister during a recent TV appearance, and was utterly against so-called plots of any kind, she replied: “but no one notices the good stuff, they just hear the bad”.
As is often the case with such conversations, I was convinced at the time of the justness of my own opinion. It was only afterwards, having had a bit of time to think, that I realised that my friend had a point.
I have referred to “the need to be more radical”. This is not because I believe the Government isn’t doing good things – that is the purpose of this article – but just because, like many members, we just want our party to be the very best it can be.
Nevertheless that conversation with my colleague has been playing on my mind ever since. Every time I have considered it, I have come back to three transformations the Conservative government has made: in literacy and reading, in skills and apprenticeships and in helping the lower paid.
Of course, mistakes are made, and governments get things wrong – but there is also a duty to make sure that the good gets out into the public sphere too.
Our education system is the best it has ever been. 1.9 million more children are now in good or outstanding schools. But even more than this progress in general, one particular educational success has been both radical and successful: phonics. This was one of the most controversial reforms introduced by the Conservative-led Government in 2010, but has been hugely transformative for primary school pupils’ reading levels.
The decision was made to use phonics to teach children to read against a backdrop of stagnating literacy levels amongst English students. Using the previous ‘look and say’ style of teaching, there also appeared to be a wider gap between top and bottom performers than in most other countries.
Nick Gibb’s support for phonics as Schools Minister has transformed England’s position in international league tables. In December, it was announced that 154,000 more six year olds were on track to be fluent readers in 2017 than in 2012. Of the 50 countries studied, England had risen from joint 10th place in 2011 to joint 8th place in 2016. Crucially, pupils from all backgrounds had improved reading abilities, but the most rapid improvements were seen amongst the lower-performing pupils – those who need it most. When we talk about social justice, if we can improve the literacy skills of all our children, we are changing the fundamentals for the better.
In addition to the ongoing reading revolution, it is Conservatives who are building an Apprenticeship and Skills nation. Over 900,000 Apprentices currently – the highest in our nation’s history – is a remarkable achievement. The introduction of the apprenticeships levy (whilst it has its critics and some teething problems) is a vital cog in the skills revolution.
The introduction of the levy is the biggest shake-up of skills for a generation, and will help the Government to deliver on its commitment to reach three million apprenticeships by 2020.
It is not Labour, but the Conservatives, who have announced the greatest ever overhaul in technical education: T-Levels. These will be an essential part of the skills revolution that will ensure the country has the skills it needs. In 2020, the first T-Levels will be taught. Innovatively, they are being developed with the help of experts from companies such as Rolls Royce and EDF. These T-Levels will be vital to improving both the quality and prestige between technical and academic education. They will meet the needs of employers and of the country as a whole as we work to overcome the skills deficit. The technical education reforms are also backed by £500 million extra from the Treasury, announced in the 2016 Budget.
If education and your apprenticeships is not your biscuit, how about the help for the lower paid? The Conservative Government – yes, a Conservative Government – is the government of the National Living Wage and of cutting taxes for lower earners. Communicated properly, this represents a powerful counter-balance to the negative narrative from the Left.
Since its introduction, the living wage will have boosted the income of the lowest paid by £2,000 a year. Workers also pay £1,075 less income tax than they did in 2010, due to the Conservative Government increasing the tax-free personal allowance to £11,850. The fuel duty freeze is now in its eighth consecutive year. This leaves the average motorist £850 better off, and the average van driver over £2,000 better off, since 2010.
So whilst I will continue to campaign for radical reform and social justice in our party, it is important to recognise as well as criticise. Something that those of us on the sidelines need to remember more often, especially with the advances made by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. I hope that will please my well-intentioned colleague.