The General Election campaign is well and truly underway with the major parties adopting predictable stances. The Conservatives are saying that only a Conservative Government can be trusted with the Economy while the Labour party are saying that another Conservative Government will destroy the National Health Service. Both statements stretch credulity when under the Conservative-led Coalition Government the Gross National Debt has increased from £0.91 trillion in FY 2011 to an estimated £1.36 trillion in FY 2015[i]
while under the previous Labour Government the total bill to the taxpayer over time is estimated at £229 billion on NHS PFI contracts valued at £62 billion.[ii]
I wrote on the NHS in my blog The Health of the National Health Service
, the second of my series of six, monthly blogs running up to the General Election. I will come back to the Economy nearer the Election as I want to deal with the latest figures available. But this month I want to cover the important topic of education. For a while it looked like this would not be one of the major themes of the Election and then this week David Cameron announced that his party’s six priorities in their manifesto would be the deficit, jobs, taxes, education, housing and retirement, leaving immigration, Europe and the NHS conspicuous by their absence. Of course, the critics jumped on this particularly Labour over the NHS, but Cameron is right to prioritise education as Tony Blair famously did before him.
In the 1997 General Election campaign Tony Blair said “If you ask me what my three priorities are I say Education, Education, Education.” It was a great sound bite, not least because it implied a long term view of his ministry. It is not possible for politicians to achieve major results with short term policies in education, so only by taking a long-term consistent view can such changes result. So what happened? Well, there is no doubt that the Labour Government, with Gordon Brown as its paymaster, poured billions of pounds into education. According to the Office for National Statistics Labour’s spending on education rose from £35.3 billion in 2000 to £63.9 billion in 2009. But there is considerable doubt that it did much good. In 2012 the organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published a study Education at a Glance[iv]
which found that expenditure on UK primary and secondary schools and colleges as a percentage of GDP increased from 3.6 per cent in 1995 to 4.5 per cent in 2009, higher than the OECD average of 4.0 per cent. But the report concluded that there had been ‘no improvement in student learning outcomes’.
Andreas Schleicher, deputy director for education at the OECD, said: ‘Spending in the UK has gone up really a lot and has not been reflected in changes to [exam] scores. You have seen huge effort on the part of Government and at the same time outcomes have been flat.’
The OECD monitors standards by administering its own tests in reading, maths and science for hundreds of thousands of 15-year olds in up to 70 countries every three years. The results in 2010 revealed that the UK fell from 24th
position in maths, 14th
in science and 17th
in reading. The average class size in primary schools in 2010 was 25.8 pupils – above the OECD average of 21.3. Indeed according to the report primary class sizes are bigger only in Turkey, Korea, Japan, Israel and Chile, all countries with highly homogeneous populations where larger classes are much easier to manage than the multi-cultural ones that developed in New Labour’s Britain.
The OECD said the social make-up of British schools poses ‘significant challenges’ for immigrant students and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Some 79.8 per cent of immigrant students whose mothers are poorly educated – not achieving any qualifications beyond GCSE level – are concentrated in disadvantaged schools. This is a higher proportion than any other OECD country. The average level is 55.9 per cent. However, the situation is not limited to children with poorly educated mothers. Some 42.5 of cent of immigrant students born to highly educated mothers – those who have a degree – are in disadvantaged schools. This is also higher than any other country examined by researchers, with the average being 26.1 per cent.
The report’s conclusions sound a familiar chord from the Blair-Brown years. Increased public spending on a wide range of public services rarely achieved positive returns. At the same time attempts to reform these public services usually failed. In a 1999 speech to an audience of venture capitalists Blair said that British culture is “fundamentally anti-meritocratic.” “Too often in Britain,” he continued, “if people saw someone with money, they were jealous of them, whereas in the US they wanted to emulate them.” The years of ‘snobbery’ against people making money was particularly entrenched in the public services, he went on. “Try getting change in the public sector and the public services. I bear the scars on my back after two years in government and heaven knows what it will be like after a bit longer. People in the public sector were more rooted to the concept that ‘if it has always been done this way it must always be done this way’ than any group of people I have come across.”
What it was like after a lot more years was much the same. Brown kept on pouring money into public services. Blair failed to reform them properly. So the results were ever more debt and not much return. But the debt continues to climb because most of this money went into fixed costs like wages. Some went into buildings and no doubt the infrastructure in schools improved. But that has only an indirect effect on teaching and learning. That must be dealt with in the class room and that’s where Labour feared to tread because of the solid resistance of the trade unions to reform. Indeed the OECD study referred to above came out just a day after the National Union of Teachers and the NASUWT announced a work-to-rule, with staff sticking rigidly to six-and-a-half hour days, refusing all non-teaching duties and threatening strikes.
One Labour reform that met with approval from both sides of the House of Commons was the introduction of Academies. Academy schools are state funded in England (not Wales) which are directly funded by central government (specifically the Department for Education) and independent of direct control by the local authority. Academies are self-governing and all are constituted as non-profit charitable trusts. They are required to follow the National Curriculum in the core subjects of maths, English and science but are otherwise free to innovate.
Andrew Adonis was the original architect and he principally saw them as a way to improve failing schools. Despite opposition from the trade unions and senior Labour figures like Neil Kinnock they were introduced in 2000. David Blunkett, the then Secretary of State for Education and Skills, said their aim was “to improve pupil performance and break the cycle of low expectations.” By May 2010 there were 203 Academies, now known as Sponsored Academies, though the sponsors, either private individuals or organisations, no longer had to contribute 10% of the capital costs.
In May 2010 the new Education Secretary Michael Gove invited all state schools in England to opt out of Local Authority control and convert to Academy status. By September 2012 the majority of state secondary schools in England had become academies.
There is no clear evidence that these Academies as a whole perform better than what they replaced. Some clearly do, some clearly don’t and many are much the same. Labour seems ambivalent because they created them in the first place even though Gove clearly took them very much further than Labour ever intended. It is unlikely that Labour would waste a lot of time and money in unwinding these conversions and few still advocate that they should be restored to Local Authority control.
In the school where I am an Honorary Governor we became one of that first group that converted in time for the 2011-12 academic year. At the time there was considerable debate over the decision both among staff and in the governing body. I looked at all the emails written by the staff and not one mentioned the interests of the pupils. After I pointed that out the Governors voted unanimously in favour of the change. In our last Ofsted visit the school was assessed as Outstanding. However, we did not take one of the powers open to us, that of negotiating terms and conditions directly with staff. We remain bound by national union negotiations and that probably makes sense as many teachers seek to develop their careers by switching schools and having a common remuneration system makes that easier.
Gove has been removed from his post probably because his reformist zeal was unpopular. Other Tory ministers of similar bent like Andrew Lansley have also gone. Cameron seems to be going into the next Election with a cabinet of less controversial figures who will try to exude competence rather than reformist ambition. This is a pity because all the evidence is that the UK continues to stagnate in the charts that make international comparisons of standards. We might not want to be top of those charts where pupils may be forced to concentrate on the narrow agenda and not benefit from the wonderfully broad curriculum of our best schools, whether private or state sector. But we should want our young people to have a better chance in life than most of them get now.