This could be my last general election writing about education policy. If any party gets a big enough majority to last five years, I suspect I might be doing something else by the time it is over.
It is not because I don’t find the subject endlessly fascinating but, after more than 15 years writing about schools, over 40 years actively involved in local and national politics and three decades as a school governor, I know most general elections don’t substantially change much about our education system and this one seems likely to live down to that expectation.
I can only think of three in my lifetime that significantly moved the dial. All were distinguished by a small number of big ideas carefully hammered out in advance so an incoming government could hit the ground running.
Whether it was Thatcher’s parent choice and the national curriculum in 1987, Labour’s high investment, high control “standards not structures” programme in 1997, or Michael Gove’s rocket boosters under academisation in 2010, all fundamentally changed education.
But don’t hold your breath this time. If the last few weeks are anything to go by, education will, as usual, be dwarfed by health. School funding will feature heavily and the Conservatives (with nothing else new to say) hit the ground running with their slippery £14bn promise that turns out to be half as much in real money and simply reverses cuts they have made since 2010. Labour will need to trump that with specific, cast-iron promises if it wants to overcome voter fatigue with meaningless figures.
It is also going to have to do better than another airy regurgitation of the National Education Service. Only last week I received an email saying Labour was calling for manifesto ideas. Really? Maybe they haven’t noticed that the general election, in which the opposition should be wiping the floor with a government that has brought schools to their knees, started about three months ago.
Recent polling hinted that the Tories already have a slight lead in this vital area, which suggests Labour’s plans to abolish lots of things – Ofsted, primary tests, private schools – without explaining what would come in their place, are not resonating with voters.
It’s not too late, of course, so, at the risk of sounding like a stuck record after all these years banging the drum for ideas that never see the light of day, can I suggest the following?
Reform admissions, end selection and do more than pay lip service to the impact that fragmented local oversight of schools is having on standards and social justice. It is not good enough to continue with the status quo or to breezily promise more local authority control. We need to know how an incoming government would usher in an era of real comprehensive schools for all children, with public accountability that prioritises inclusion rather than exclusion.
Prioritise 14-19 education. The century-long failure to boost the status of practical or technical education will become a matter of extreme urgency if Brexit goes ahead and skilled overseas workers are lost. At the moment we lazily tolerate more than a third of pupils falling short in an examination – the GCSE – that should have been abolished 10 years ago.
A baccalaureate-type diploma at 18, which would ensure all pupils leave with a passport to either higher education or work, is long overdue. A blueprint exists in the Tomlinson proposals of 2004 which, with more courage, could have been implemented by now.
Finally, the chronic teacher shortage. There is no point funding thousands of extra pupils if we can’t guarantee enough people to teach them, or become school leaders of the future. Let’s see a serious, detailed plan for transforming teaching into a high-status, attractive and enjoyable profession again.
I am sure others will have equally pressing priorities, any one of which would keep an energetic, progressive and focused government occupied for the next five years, but probably won’t.
This could have been an election to move the dial. Instead, we could well be back here in five years’ time, making the same points, and that is way too long for me.