Lule Tryl is Director of the New Schools Network. He is a former Director of Strategy at Ofsted, and former Special Adviser.
While his forthcoming book will, no doubt, try and set the record straight, David Cameron must by now be resigned to the fact that he will largely be remembered for Brexit. More charitable types will cite the introduction of equal marriage, the commitment to 0.7 per cent of GDP to foreign aid, or his work tackling the budget deficit, but when it comes to Cameron’s legacy, most will likely miss the most important area of reform during his administration – education.
True, the Coalition Government’s education reforms are more closely associated with Michael Gove than David Cameron, and it’s undoubtedly true that both the policy innovation and determination to drive through reform came from Gove, Nick Gibb and Nicky Morgan’s leadership at the Department for Education (DfE). But the simple fact is, they were given the license to operate because they had a Prime Minister who, having been a Shadow Education Secretary himself, was a passionate believer in the cause of improving education.
I remember a meeting in 2015 as Nicky Morgan’s Special Adviser during the spending review negotiations in which George Osborne, then Chancellor, remarked “I don’t know whether it makes you lucky or unlucky, but education spending is one of the areas the Prime Minister will take most interest in”. It was a level of interest I saw throughout my time at the DfE. Fundamentally, Cameron, perhaps conscious of his own life advantages, recognised that there was no point in trumpeting the traditional Conservative mantra of meritocracy while we had a school system that simply didn’t offer equality of opportunity.
That is exactly what the reforms introduced by his Government did. On the standards side, changes to the curriculum ensured that all children, not just the privileged few, are exposed to the best that had been thought and said, new gold-standard qualifications genuinely prepare young people for work and further study, and grade inflation has been stopped; on the structures side, turbo-charging the academies programme has given more head teachers the freedom to run their schools in the way they know best and to support other schools. Arguably, most radical of all was the free schools programme which gave teachers, parents and employers who weren’t happy with their local schools the chance to demand something different for their community and open a new school.
Those reforms have worked. We now have 1.9 million more children in Good or Outstanding schools compared to 2010, more children are on course to become better readers thanks to the phonics check, and more will have mastered the 3Rs by the end of primary school. Across the country, free schools have brought in innovative practice, are the top performing schools at GCSE and A-Level, and are 50 per cent more likely to be rated Outstanding by Ofsted than other schools.
Unfortunately, as with so much domestic policy, Brexit sapped the momentum from education reform. This was compounded by the Government’s disastrous attempt to promote grammar schools, which undermined the central premise of earlier reforms – that every child should receive a rigorous academic education up until age 16 – while the surprising impact of school cuts campaigners on the 2017 election has meant that the debate has since been dominated by arguments around funding and workload rather than standards.
But the cause of education reform has never seemed more urgent. Most of us recognise that while much of it was about the EU, the Brexit vote was also about something else: communities that felt left behind, pushing back against a rigged system. A system where because of poor schools and lack of opportunity, parents no longer believe that their children will have better lives than they do. The Sutton Trust’s latest report confirmed what many already assumed – the top echelons of society continue to be dominated by those who were privately educated. And of course, while it is no fault of their own, the fact that both candidates to be the next leader of the Conservative Party were educated at elite public schools is not the greatest advertisement of the Party’s commitment to meritocracy.
That is why the charity I run, the New Schools Network, is urging the two leadership candidates to put education policy back at the heart of their Government.
Both candidates have committed to increasing school funding, and the case for extra resources for our schools is undeniable. But money alone isn’t enough. Simply throwing more investment at schools will not raise standards in and of itself. The next Prime Minister also needs to complete the reform programme. That means restoring the incentives for good schools to become academies so that they can share their expertise with underperforming ones. It means reaffirming the commitment to 100 new free schools a year, focused on the areas that need them most, and cutting down the bureaucracy that is stifling the next wave of innovative schools coming through. It means investing in alternative provision free schools for excluded kids, because every child deserves a chance to get their education back on track and to be kept safe from the risk of grooming and gangs.
The Government’s record on education since 2010 is one they can be proud of, but there is still much to do. The Prime Minister who gave a rallying cry against burning injustices may be on her way out of Downing Street, but the biggest injustice of all – the uneven distribution of educational opportunity – remains. Whether it’s Hunt or Johnson, the next Prime Minister should make it their number one priority that when their time comes to leave Downing Street, their legacy has been to finally tackle it.