Education, Education, Education

‘Have Gove and Cameron learnt nothing from the disasters of the past 12 years?’

For 12 years, with mounting anger and deepening despair, I have watched Labour undermine state education. The curriculum has been emptied of academic rigour, examinations have been dumbed down and the profession lobotomised. Now, I am wondering what, if anything, will change if and when Michael Gove replaces the egregious Ed Balls.

Be patient, my Conservative friends tell me. All will be well when the next election is won. Labour is imploding. It would be silly to announce policies that might frighten the electorate. They pat me on the head, smile reassuringly, and turn out the light. 

Will all be well? So far we know that David Cameron and Gove have dismissed grammar schools as an elitist anachronism and have embraced the white elephant of Labour’s academy programme. They intend to keep the National Curriculum and to retain Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education) alongside, it seems, the other mechanisms of state educational control such as the Training and Development Agency and the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, which have caused so much harm. 

“There are those,” Gove announced last year, “who say that university education, by definition, can only ever be enjoyed or appreciated by a minority.” The expansion of higher education will, in other words, continue under the Conservatives. More and more young people will waste three years studying for a meaningless degree. 

Skim the pages of Policy Green Paper No.1, Raising the Bar, Closing the Gap, and your eyes will alight on these sentences:

“Conservative education policy is driven by a moral imperative — the need to make the most of every individual talent. We believe in raising the bar for achievement in Britain, helping every child to acquire a more comprehensive array of skills and providing them with the knowledge to become authors of their own life stories…Our education reform plan is driven by a commitment to social justice — a society made more equal by dispersing opportunity both more widely and more fairly.”

This could be New Labour at its most sanctimoniously utopian. Have Gove and Cameron learnt nothing from the disasters of the last 12 years? Is it that they have no concept of an education policy rooted in Conservative values? Or is it that they are too intimidated by the messages from their focus groups to stand up for what matters?

Cameron tells us that he wants to “give people more responsibility”. He says, “If you trust people, they will tend to do the right thing.” He also says, “We must never be limited in our aspirations for government” and that a Conservative government under his leadership would “guarantee the provision of high-quality, efficient public services” and “work tirelessly for social justice and a responsible society”.

He cannot have it both ways. How, having devolved power to the people, is his government going to guarantee high-quality schools? More fundamentally, who is going to decide what constitutes a high-quality education? Gove, who wants a traditional, academic curriculum, school uniform, streaming and synthetic phonics — or the parent who wants none of these things? If Gove were really to free schools, I would be the first to cheer. As it is, I despair at the pretence.

Under a Conservative government, most state schools will have to conform to the demands of the National Curriculum. All will be inspected by Ofsted. None will be able to determine its own admissions policy. None, of course, will be able to select its pupils in terms of their academic ability. The teachers they employ will, as now, need to have been brainwashed by teacher-training institutions, which have to conform to the demands of the TDA. Their head teachers, unless Gove changes his mind, will have to have spent a year listening to the gurus of “personalised learning” who rule the National College of School Leadership.

A genuine Conservative education policy would abandon the pretence that every child is equal and that schools can solve the unhappiness of man. It would free schools from state control and encourage them to compete one with another to meet the different demands of their potential customers. It would give each parent a sum of money that equates to the average cost of educating a child in a state school and allow them to cash that “voucher” in payment or part-payment of fees in an independent school. In doing so, it would give parents a real choice, attract new providers of education into the market and encourage competition between and among schools.

We would have a genuine Conservative education policy. Voters would have a real choice at the next election.

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