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'It's a remarkable turnround in education politics. Angela Rayner is making the weather'

And the Tories have a lot of catching up to do. The education policies emerging from the Conservative's Department for Education are hardly headline-grabbing

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And the Tories have a lot of catching up to do. The education policies emerging from the Conservative's Department for Education are hardly headline-grabbing

“She's a class act. Easily the most impressive shadow secretary of state since 2010.”

Thus tweeted Gabriel Milland, Michael Gove’s former communications director at Department for Education, about Angela Rayner.

Such comments represent an extraordinary turnround for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party, and the scale of the political challenge now faced by Justine Greening and her Department for Education.

For nearly a decade, by far the most interesting education policies – at least from the perspective of press and policy wonks – were Tory. From academy-convertors and free schools through to the promise of more grammar schools, Labour was playing catch-up.

The Conservatives owned the policy agenda when it came to schools. If you doubt me, try to think of a single interesting education idea in the 2015 Labour manifesto. I can’t.

But now…now…now…try to think of one interesting, truly dynamic and transformative idea emanating from Greening’s offices. At the risk of sounding trite, Opportunity Areas, the Teaching and Leadership Innovation Fund and T-levels do not cut the mustard. Perhaps sadly, headline-grabbing they are not.

(Indeed, they are vaguely reminiscent of education policies that emerged out of the dog days of the Gordon Brown government, when it was clear to everyone that it had run out of steam.)

And while it’s very important attempting to resolve what one insider referred to as the “messy middle tier” of accountability, elections are not won on such tricky policy problems. 

Now contrast that with the all singing and dancing National Education Service (NES), details of which were unveiled by Rayner at this week’s Labour conference. OK, “details” may be stretching it a little, but more colour and flannel were trumpeted. And lots of column inches followed.

Where once the NES idea seemed a little thin (the concept was first mooted when Corbyn was but a leadership candidate), now it’s making the running.

The NES might be farfetched, and it’s likely improbably expensive, but politically, it has the benefit of being interesting, easy-to-understand and, with its echoes of the sainted NHS, comforting. Especially with the dynamic and increasingly omnipresent Rayner as its chief advocate.

To a casual observer, it also looks a bit like it might contain some answers to the real concerns about education funding cuts and teacher supply problems that are informing how parents vote.

Next week, the focus of the press will turn to Manchester, where Tory infighting and Brexit will dominate the headlines. I can more or less guarantee that education will barely get a look-in.

All of a sudden, it looks like the Conservatives have got a lot of catching up to do. Voters will soon get bored of Brexit (if they’re not already) and as the election earlier this year proved, they are already very, very interested in schools.

Over to you, Justine.

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

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