Education is a hot election issue, about to get hotter

Ofsted, primary testing, adult education and private schools will all ensure that education is central to the election

Ed Dorrell

Election 2019: Why education will be a key battleground in the 12 December general election

Sky News found itself with a bit of social-media bother last month, when its editors decided to bill December’s national poll as the “Brexit election”.

Online critics suggested that Sky News was taking a reductionist approach to the election – that there was a lot more at stake than just leaving the EU – and that, as such, it favoured the Conservative Party, because of its plan to focus voters’ minds on “getting Brexit done”.

These angry voices were not loud enough or sustained enough to force a climbdown from Sky bosses, but this doesn’t mean that they were wrong.

There is a lot more up for grabs when we head to the voting booths than just deal, no deal or remain. And a big chunk of that is in education.

In 2017, the poll famously swung in Labour’s favour – at least in part – on school funding cuts. While Tory strategists clearly believe that they’ve neutralised that as an issue this time around, with their promised billions for education, there are some other very big dividing lines between the parties. We can expect these to be presented as competing visions.

(It is worth noting at this point that there are not the same policy dividing lines in healthcare, where all three main parties compete only on funding and promises to reduce waiting lists. The NHS is certainly not a political football in the same way that the schools system finds itself being booted around.)

Election 2019: the education battle lines

This week we finally – finally! – got some details of what Labour’s long-trailed “National Education Service” might entail. We saw big commitments to early years, and more than a little airtime being given to promises to make vocational and adult education free for many. Jeremy Corbyn referred to free education as being like an “escalator that travels with us upwards through our lives”.

We also have the promise to abolish Ofsted – which I would expect to see in the Labour election manifesto – and some kind of reforms to the tax and charity status of independent schools (probably short of wholesale abolition). And then there’s the promise to get rid of the current key stage 2 testing regime.

The Conservative “vision” can be expected to be framed both as a doubling down in defence of Michael Gove’s reforms – academies, free schools, exam changes, etc – and as a reaction to Labour’s proposed changes, suggesting that this will represent going soft on schools. Boris Johnson is sure to bang on about Ofsted endlessly, driving home this message.

It’s not yet clear whether the Conservative manifesto will include a return to the assisted-places scheme of the past, or whether we should expect an expansion of grammar schools or selection. But, even so, the divides are there, and very, very pronounced.

And then into this political battleground we can expect a massive Pisa-shaped hand grenade just a week before election day.

More than nine years after Gove first arrived at the Department for Education with his reforming – and polarising – approach to managing the school system, you can safely expect England’s performance in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s international league tables to be used as a political battering ram, however the country performs. 

Education is already a hot electoral issue. Expect it to get a lot hotter.

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Ed Dorrell

Ed Dorrell

Ed Dorrell is deputy editor and head of content at the TES, former features and comment editor and former news editor. 

Find me on Twitter @Ed_Dorrell

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