Last night I attended an event at the Institute of Education in London. Four big names in education politics (Ken Baker, Sally Morgan, Estelle Morris and Jon Coles) discussed what potentially might appear in the major party manifestos for the next general election. In a way, it was a peculiar event: by focussing on all the parties, it inevitably tended towards a broad brush approach, which then tended to consensus, since in the broadest terms, the major political parties obviously agree. Education reform over the past 30 years has always been a cross-party affair: Callaghan’s Ruskin speech is as much a forebear of the Education Reform Act as the Black Papers were, and Michael Gove’s Blairite heritage is a matter of public record. The big ticket items of education policy–school autonomy, strong accountability, rigorous qualifications–are all agreed by the education policy-makers in the major parties.
Or, at least, they are all agreed upon in contrast to the statist command-and-control agenda which education reform arose to combat. But that view, though it still finds it’s friends in parts of the education policy world, is neither dominant nor likely to become so again. The united front of education reformers against their common enemy is in danger of closing down necessary discussion about what does divide them. Last night, for example, funding was barely mentioned, yet there is a very real risk that that FE colleges are going to start going bust inside the next two years: that needs a fix. Some would say that should be answered by a pure free market – send the weak to the wall. Others would point out that the financial architecture underpinning FE, and indeed schools, is presently so full of perverse incentives that there is no guarantee it is the truly weak who will go down. Thorough-going debate about that is essential to ensure that, whoever is in government, the scenarios have at least been considered.
Curriculum was discussed a lot, but mostly in focussing on “creativity”, a term which was used abstractly and differently by all the panellists and those in the audience, and with no one getting their teeth into the real debates going on about how, and why, a particular curriculum might be worthwhile in a school. Too many still seem to believe that the content of the National Curriculum is the most important determinant of what happens in schools, rather than how schools (and the trusts or academies they fit may belong to) respond to that document, a response mostly driven by the requirements of the inspection and qualifications frameworks.
On professional development, everyone agreed that “human capital”–please God can that phrase be exiled from debate–is important and that central government fiat is not the way to ensure it is developed. But that doesn’t mean government (or potential governments) shouldn’t be thinking about who will do these things, and have some idea how they might do them. At the very minimum, politicians cannot announce something is going to happen without a clue how it will be delivered or if it is even possible.
Education policy is running with a surfeit of vision and a deficit of detail, which is ironic given that in all parties the details-people are in charge. The bear pit of the Commons and the media’s desire for personal acrimony is breeding arguments over the wrong things (under whom will Jane Austen be taught better is not a sensible debate) and ignoring the things that matter. A debate about how to make INSET days better isn’t going to make it into any election manifesto, and education could probably do with some time out of the limelight, but some very boring, very necessary work needs to be done by reformers in all parties, and some arguments need to happen between them, to ensure that the achievements of education reform are not lost in a consensual discussion, which whilst not false is not the whole truth either.
p.s. It was great that IoE organised this event, but the construction of that horrendous building means phone reception is negligible in the concrete basement and the wifi networks were locked, so only about four people out of the much larger audience could live tweet. That was a shame.