'Are education funding cuts becoming Theresa May's Achilles' heel?'

The election was supposed to be about Brexit – but now the voting public is becoming aware of the cuts being faced by schools, and they're even jeering the prime minister

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One of the more surprising developments in Election 2017 has been how the Conservatives have lost control of the campaign's education conversation.

Cuts to school funding have moved to centre stage. Last night, during Channel 4's Battle for Number 10, the prime minister was even jeered as she answered an audience member’s question about education finance.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. If you look back to Theresa May’s first public policy pronouncement as PM in the autumn of last year, it was all about her plans for new grammar schools, transforming education and working to improve social mobility.

Jump forward just a few months, and grammars didn’t even get a mention last night (just the tiniest of nods, when she mentioned more diversity in the school system). Questioned about the state of investment in schools, the PM disingenuously conflated government plans to reform the National Funding Formula – to make it fairer – and the unrelated system-wide cuts. Cue the jeering from at least a section of her audience.

The education budget squeeze has become a significant Achilles' heel for the Conservatives. There can be little doubt the public now understands that schools, teachers and pupils are being fleeced. Just last week, Twitter revealed data that education was being discussed as a general election topic on its forums nearly as often as health and just behind Brexit itself. Contrast that with (admittedly more scientific) Ipsos Mori polling in January which suggested that education was a priority for just 1 per cent of the public.

A plan gone awry

Amazing how quickly the narrative has turned against the government on this. It was less than two months ago that Tes magazine correctly published a cover story wondering why the cuts to school funding had largely failed to enter the public consciousness.

Credit for this speedy turn-around must go to a range of groups: to the teacher unions, which have produced a clever online campaign; to parents groups in places like Brighton; to heads writing and sharing letters to parents about their budgets; to the National Audit Office for cooking up such a soundbite-friendly number as £3 billion; and, of course, to the Labour Party itself, which has resisted the urge to park its tanks on the grammar school battlefield, and instead remained focused on funding.

This wasn't the Conservative plan. Ms May and her people were confident they could win – and win big – by making the campaign all about “strong and stable” leadership and focusing the minds of the voters on Brexit.

It was widely speculated, as the dust settled on Ms May’s surprise decision to call an election, that the more the “conversation” stayed on Brexit, the better the Conservatives would do – and, conversely, the more the focus was on “austerity-driven” public sector cuts, the better it would be for Jeremy Corbyn.

This analysis appears to explain what we are now seeing. The voting public appears to be less interested in IRA sympathy or nuclear subs than in investment in public services – all of which probably goes some way to explaining why the gap between Tories and Labour in the polls appears to be closing.

So don’t expect Corbyn to stop talking about education cuts any time soon. It’s perhaps Labour's best hope of pulling off the most unlikely of electoral successes.

Ed Dorrell is head of content at Tes. He tweets @Ed_Dorrell.

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