“My heart says Conservative,” a former teacher says, lifting Nicky Morgan’s hopes. “But my head says Labour…It’s the cuts, you see. I just don’t agree with them.”
This is the front line of the general election campaign. On a grey, blustery Saturday morning in Loughborough’s market, the education secretary is handing out leaflets as she tries to secure a second term as the town’s MP. It’s a hotly contested seat, with Ms Morgan holding a majority of just 3,744. During her two-hour stint, she fields questions on everything from allotments to hunting, as well as cuts to post-16 education.
Although education has received little attention in this campaign, funding cuts under the coalition are an issue that pops up regularly in Ms Morgan’s chats with Loughborough’s shoppers, as demonstrated when the aforementioned ex-teacher explains why she is choosing her head over her heart.
But Ms Morgan tells TES that despite a “difficult funding environment” over the past five years, the country now has “more excellent schools and higher standards”. “And we’ll be seeing that over the next five years,” she adds.
The looming issue of increased pension and national insurance contributions, which the Institute for Fiscal Studies says will leave schools facing cuts of up to 12 per cent, would be addressed in the spending review over the summer, Ms Morgan says. “We’re protecting that per-pupil funding, which is very important because that is the way schools think about their funding,” she adds. “We are the only party to do that.”
The Conservatives are also the only party to promise more tests for students. The so-called “resit tests” for Year 7s will, Ms Morgan claims, ensure that students who have fallen behind catch up and can go on to secure decent grades at GCSE and beyond. While secondary schools are concerned that the tests will make them accountable to Ofsted for the failings of primaries, Ms Morgan believes they will lead to more collaboration, with top headteachers helping weaker schools to improve.
But this has become a sticking point for some leaders. Heads only receive credit for what they achieve in their own schools and many say they are being “penalised” because their support for struggling schools is not recognised.
“Ofsted needs to take more account of the situation some schools are in and whether they have the capacity to improve,” Ms Morgan concedes. “What I want to see is teachers knowing that, if they take on a school in a challenging environment, that will be reflected in their career progression.
“Some people think it will count against them, when actually what I want to say is, ‘No, you stepped up to the plate, you did the right thing and that will be recognised.’ ”
The education secretary is keen to stress that five years under a Conservative government would provide “stability”. Although there would be “some” education legislation, mainly in the early years sector, the focus would be on building “excellence in the system”.
Since replacing Michael Gove last year, Ms Morgan has helped to detoxify her party in the eyes of the profession. Her efforts to alleviate teachers’ workload went a long way towards winning the workforce around, but the outcomes of the Workload Challenge were criticised for not going far enough.
“It was a first step; there isn’t a magic wand I can wave,” she says. “It was a really important piece of work to do and I am very proud to have done it. There are lots of little things – curriculum, data management, marking – that will not be solved overnight. But I want to make very clear that if I am back in office after 7 May, continuing to work on what people told us in the Workload Challenge is absolutely a priority for me.”
“When you knock on someone’s door and ask for their vote, all those esoteric debates about education become much more real,” says Tristram Hunt. The shadow education secretary is talking to TES in standard class on the train from London to Swindon in the run-up to polling day.
The Labour politician has faced some criticism for his performance as the party’s education spokesperson, but since the starting gun for the general election was fired, some onlookers have claimed that Mr Hunt has come to life.
He is in high spirits, despite the punishing hours required in what is one of the longest election campaigns in memory. “You want to time your passion…even though that sounds a bit weird,” he says. “You want to do some thinking, you want to do some heavy lifting with the policy and then you want to energise people about their choices.”
For Mr Hunt, the choice between Labour and the Conservatives couldn’t be starker. Labour, he says, is the only “credible party” that will protect early years and post-16 budgets.
“The Tories have delivered a 20 per cent cut to [early years] spending. We’re protecting the schools budget in real terms, and then, crucially, we’re protecting post-16 as well, when the Tories would deliver another 20 per cent cut,” he warns.
“There will be either a Labour prime minister or a Tory prime minister. So either you’re going to have massive cuts to early years and post-16 with the Tories, or you are going to have protected investment under Labour.”
In truth, Labour’s spending plans will result in almost as great a cut to schools as the Tories’. Funding would rise in line with inflation, but Labour does not take into account growth in pupil numbers; 650,000 additional children entering the system by 2020 would effectively wipe out any inflationary rise.
Mr Hunt is acutely aware of the tough fiscal landscape that lies ahead. “There’s no point fooling your readers,” he says. “Finances will be tight; 2017 is a real headache because of pension contributions and national insurance contributions. We will have to keep a close watch on all of that.”
Costs will be saved, he believes, by Labour’s emphasis on greater collaboration between early years providers, schools and colleges, where resources and staff could be shared. His party would move away from the “incredibly expensive every-school-an-island approach” that he says has dominated the coalition’s education policy.
Labour, Mr Hunt claims, faces a “double bind” if it comes into power: the party will inherit a demoralised workforce “decried as the Blob and the enemies of promise”, as well as a looming teacher recruitment crisis.
But he dismisses the idea that, as Labour education secretary, he would face an impossible job of challenging the workforce while ensuring good relations with trade unions. This has certainly proved tough for the coalition; its term in office was punctuated by national and regional strikes over changes to teachers’ pay, conditions and pensions.
“I am on the side of pupils,” Mr Hunt says. “They get one shot at an education; it has to be a stand-out experience for them. I look forward to children not losing a day’s learning because of strike action. You always have the trade union relationship you deserve. And the Tories deserved this one.”
To improve young people’s life chances you need quality teachers, he adds. “What animates my mission is the notion of communities being left behind by globalisation, for which their only way out is education. There are very strong headwinds, but what’s the best thing you can do for a kid from a disadvantaged background? Put a really good teacher in front of them.”