Weakened government will give schools space and funds

16th June 2017 at 00:00
The rise of education on the general election agenda is likely to change the approach of the minority government – no matter how long its tenure lasts

There is a myth developing that Labour did so much better than expected in last week’s election because a bunch of idealistic students with no understanding of life’s realities decided to come out and vote for a change. It wasn’t, though, the students wot won it. It was the parents.

Analysis of YouGov data – which predicted the result almost perfectly – shows that the Conservatives lost a third of 25-44-year-olds who voted for them in 2015. That alone deprived them of a comfortable majority. It’s impossible to know exactly why so many of this age group abandoned Ms May, but a glance at the issues they were prioritising suggests funding for schools and hospitals played a big role.

For the first time since 1997, candidates from all parties reported that school spending was coming up on the doorsteps, in part due to a viral campaign from the NUT teaching union – the most successful bit of trade union campaigning I’ve seen in the past decade.

The Conservatives’ failure to respond to these concerns means that our new Parliament is not quite so strong and stable. But it could well last longer than many expect. If they secure an alliance with the DUP, the working majority of 13 could be enough to survive for two or three years, especially as even rebellious Tory MPs are unlikely to fancy another election any time soon.

This is probably good news for those of us working in education. For a start, we can expect a bit more generosity from the Treasury. The Conservative manifesto promised a welcome £1 billion a year extra for schools, and more may be forthcoming. The proposed removal of universal free school meals, which went down like a pork pie at a bar mitzvah with the electorate, won’t be happening.

'No new grammar schools'

A minority government also means no new grammar schools. That policy’s architect, the PM’s former chief of staff Nick Timothy, has fallen on his sword, and Justine Greening – never a fan of the policy – has been reappointed as secretary of state. Even if Theresa May wanted to continue with the policy, she simply wouldn’t have the votes in the Commons. In any case, the Lords would kill it as the Salisbury Convention (which means the Lords abide by manifesto pledges) doesn’t apply for minority governments.

With such a precarious position in the Commons, it’s unlikely the government will risk any contentious legislation at all. Schools may get some necessary breathing space to implement the backlog of reforms from the past seven years without any major new ones being rolled out. Without any White Papers or Bills to deal with, the Department for Education will likely focus on non-legislative priorities such as opportunity areas, teacher recruitment and getting the regional schools commissioner model of academy regulation to function smoothly. Hopefully, Greening will also get the chance to focus more on her welcome personal priority of social mobility as well.

We can expect more focus on technical education – beloved of minority governments because the papers don’t care enough for it to be controversial. And the DfE must finish digesting higher education, acquired when the prime minister took office.

Given the current volatility of politics, the government may not survive long enough for any of this to matter. My best guess is that it will and that, by accident rather than judgement, schools will get some more money and a bit more space to manage the changes of recent years. And that important demographics might not be so vocal on the doorstep next time round, too.


Sam Freedman is executive director of programmes at Teach First and a former government policy adviser

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