“May you live in interesting times” is supposedly a Chinese curse. Appropriately, it actually seems to have been an invention of Joseph Chamberlain, a British politician of the early 1900s who is frequently named as the inspiration behind Theresa May’s agenda.
We are experiencing the curse. We have been through three polls in two years – the 2015 general election, the 2016 EU referendum and the 2017 general election. Every time the result defied predictions and reshaped the political landscape.
Yet school policy has remained remarkably constant. One might even argue there has been a single direction since Lord Adonis became schools minister. Nicky Morgan kept 95 per cent of Michael Gove’s agenda, if not his tone. The same was true under Justine Greening before the election. The principle – school autonomy, tied to an increased focus on high academic standards – remained.
I can hear readers screaming about grammar schools, but they are a distraction. Like fox hunting, it causes passionate opposition. But the impact on the school system was always going to be limited; we were always looking at a relatively small number of new grammars.
Now, after this latest electoral upset, will we see major change in school policy?
Certainly the game has shifted, but in what direction? For reform, or away from it?
First, the forces pushing for bold reform.
The government desperately needs ideas it can sell to its MPs, to the commentariat and, most of all, to the public. That is true of all governments. For one seeking an increased majority at the next election, it is imperative.
Before 2010, the Conservatives knew that school reform was one of the ways to demonstrate to the electorate that they had something positive to offer. Reducing public spending was always going to be difficult – there had to be real change in services.
In 2016, the May government clearly felt the same – an industrial strategy and grammar schools were a way to demonstrate to the lower middle classes of England that they were on their side and making the country better.
Now, after a campaign that tragically failed to get positive policies across, the government faces the same challenge. The next five years cannot all be about Brexit, and they certainly can’t be about public spending. They will need some “wins”, and education is one of the first places they’ll look.
The Cabinet and individual ministers are also more powerful than before. A bold minister will see the new environment as an opportunity to make their mark. To date, Greening’s few speeches have been careful and limited in scope. We don’t know what her grand strategy for social mobility – which she cares deeply about – looks like. There are two possible reasons for that. One is that she doesn’t know either. The second is that she and Number 10 have not been able to agree. If the latter is true, we should expect her to set out a clear vision for the education system soon.
On the other hand, the government could also be encouraged to be timid.
They are vulnerable to opposition from all sides. The more they avoid primary legislation the better: the majority will be wafer-thin, even with the DUP’s support. When I worked in Number 10 with a majority of 12 it was difficult enough; this time it will be miserable. A tiny number of rebels will pose a lethal danger to any bill. This most obviously affects the grammar schools proposals.
The parliamentary opposition is also now real. In the early hours of Friday morning, I stood in Brixton Recreation Centre, in south London, watching dozens of volunteers count votes for Streatham, Vauxhall and Dulwich and West Norwood (where I stood as a Conservative candidate). Finally, Streatham’s results were announced. As was true across London, the Labour vote rose enormously.
Speaking as a re-elected MP, Chuka Umunna – one of many outspoken critics of Jeremy Corbyn – experienced an on-the-spot conversion. He paid fulsome tribute to the Labour leader and is clearly hoping for a senior role. The rush of converts means that Corbyn will have a credible front bench able to do real damage to government business.
The government’s vulnerability to opposition in the Commons will be compounded by pressure from the public and the sector itself. From a candidate’s point of view, the campaign on school funding had an impressive effect – it led to mass campaigning by parents, teachers and schools. In my hustings, I received far more questions about schools than I did about Brexit. This has not been the situation in previous elections, and it is a sign of the impact of intelligent campaigning.
It is virtually impossible for the Conservatives to “win” on public spending: Labour will always offer to tax more and spend more, even if the economy can’t withstand these demands. But it seems likely they’ll be forced to neutralise the issue of school spending beyond the manifesto.
Where, then, does that leave the schools sector? I think caution will win, and that the new government will focus on post-16 education in the search for dramatic ideas. Technical education is a safer bet – the stakeholders are weaker and the understanding and interest of the commentariat small, but the public actually cares about it and the potential for making a mark is much greater. It is where I would focus my promises and look for my legacy.
It seems plausible that schools are about to get the stability (and even some of the extra money) they always ask for.
Rachel Wolf was the founder of the New Schools Network and is a former education adviser to the prime minister. She is a founding partner of agency Public First, and stood as a Conservative candidate in the 2017 general election in Dulwich and West Norwood