It says much about the party conference season that the most arresting education news of last month was the headteacher march on Downing Street over school funding. The 2,000 or so heads were unfairly criticised for being “relentlessly reasonable”, a tactic that was probably wise from their point of view, especially as many acknowledged the personal conflict involved in taking protest action on a school day.
But their attempts to puncture the relentless myth that more money going into education means more money for schools at a time of soaring costs and increasing pupil numbers, at least made a clear point about current political realities.
The secretary of state, by contrast, chose to ignore totally any real world problems in his address to the Conservative party rank and file, preferring to reproduce a series of platitudes about world-class education (a phrase that should have been outlawed a decade ago), choice, diversity and character education that could have been delivered at any time in the past five years.
Meanwhile, Labour’s policies continue to underwhelm. It is now more than three years since the concept of a National Education Service was unveiled. In spite of a lengthy public consultation over the summer, we don’t know much more about how it would work in practice.
The conference speech by the shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, revealed a few titbits: under Labour there will be no new academies or free schools, the 7,000-plus that exist will be brought under some sort of “mainstream” democratic local control with a common rulebook and their admissions returned to local authorities.
But with language vague enough to allow the next stage of consultation to embrace many possibilities, Labour seems not much further forward from the carefully constructed, more detailed position carved out by David Blunkett under Ed Miliband’s leadership of the party.
It fell to the LibDem education spokesperson, Layla Moran, to touch on the many elephants in the room: Ofsted, the impact of league tables, the curriculum and grammar schools. Again the language was coded but she appeared to suggest that the Liberal Democrats might abolish the 11-plus. Or, then again, did she?
It is interesting to speculate about what lies behind this excessive caution and lack of imagination on all sides. There was barely a mention of the quality of education children and young people receive. One possibility is that none of the main parties is interested in schools, at least not in the way previous political leaders were.
Whatever one may feel about the reforming zeal of the Blair or Gove years, education policy was high profile, and at times innovative, rather than defensive or reactive, which is the best that can be said for the current offer.
Or maybe they are just scared, or lack the willpower, to confront the task at hand. In a precarious political situation in which there might be a general election at any moment, no one wants to take on the powerful vested interests: the grammar and faith schools, the dominant academy chains, and the affluent sharp-elbowed parents who continue to monopolise the best schools. Much easier to throw a little red meat to the party faithful, and disappear again.
So as parliament resumes and we are re-immersed in Brexit, expect another period of hibernation where even the impact of a calamitous EU exit on public services barely gets a thought, not to mention the rapidly increasing need to find a ready-made skilled workforce.