The smoke from the New Year’s Eve fireworks had barely dispersed before the political pyrotechnics of the 2015 General Election campaign began. Education, alongside health and the economy, will feature prominently in the political point scoring set to dominate the news in the run up to 7 May. Each party will be keen to persuade voters that it has all the answers to the pressing issues; each seeks the cheer-raising rocket and fears the damp squib. Politics appears to be the solution to the situation, but what if, in fact, it is part of the problem?
Last week Sir David Bell, former Chief Inspector of Schools and previously Permanent Secretary at the Department for Education, argued that efforts to improve England’s education system are being undermined by short-term political pressures. I couldn’t agree more. Education needs vision, long-term strategy and freedom from day-to-day, or even election-to-election, politics.
Education is a complex area and changes have very long lead-in times. Learning is a cumulative process, hence successful reforms can take fifteen years – the duration of a child’s schooling – to come to fruition. Government ministers have had to delay the introduction of new maths A levels, having discovered it is not possible to simply reform A level maths and expect standards to rise. To make a success of a more challenging A level course, pupils first need to complete a more demanding GCSE which gives them the skills and knowledge needed to tackle the new A level curriculum. In order to do well in a more stretching GCSE course, pupils need to have benefited from a more rigorous primary and early secondary maths education. You can’t increase the volume and complexity of maths to be taught without increasing the supply of good maths teachers – also a long term business. And so it goes on.
The patience, perseverance and pluck required for good long-term government are often absent from modern politics. Politicians represent voters, who assess their performance through the prism of the 24/7 media. A source tells me that one new minister in the previous administration, on meeting a team of civil servants, began by asking what she could do in six months – potentially all the time she had to prove herself. It is no wonder that a lot of quick fix tinkering to curry media and voter favour results, and underlying structural problems persist.
It is easy to blame politicians for the short-termism that can make problems worse longer term. While politicians enact the legislation, they often feel compelled to do so by a media that whips up issues in order to sell copies to an often increasingly impatient electorate that wants immediate action and results. Our children’s learning requires a different approach.
All mainstream politicians want children to have ready access to good schools and be educated well. Such universal agreement means the essence of education is not political. However, while politicians can agree on broad educational objectives, they have very different views on how to deliver them. Yet that delivery is an operational matter which should be left to experts from the teaching, university and business communities, who can use evidence and experience to inform their decisions. To do their job properly, such experts need to be given long term objectives and appropriate funding, a remit to recommend difficult solutions and freedom from day-to-day political interference. Of course, experts can make mistakes and lose their way, so independent bodies overseeing education would need to be subject to political scrutiny.
The success of the independent school sector shows what can be achieved when education experts free from direct political control, but overseen by knowledgeable trustees, run schools in accordance with long term aims and values. Higher education is another independent success story: British universities punch above their weight in global teaching and research league tables. And of course there is a successful precedent for independence in government. On 6 May 1997 Chancellor Gordon Brown gave the Bank of England independence from political control so that a ‘long term framework for economic prosperity’ could be put in place. The Bank of England has not got everything right – no organisation ever will – but it is telling that 18 years on an independent Bank of England is an accepted reality. Tony Blair’s vision of taking (some of the) politics out of economics has been achieved. Perhaps the time has come to do the same for education?