What to do when the numbers don't go your way

27th April 2012 at 01:00
Poll shows lack of faith in coalition - but that's not the whole story

The coalition is going through a rough patch. But education is often seen as the one area where ministers are making progress - on their own terms, at least. However, as the second anniversary of the formation of the government approaches, new evidence suggests that the public may disagree.

A poll by market research company Populus last week found that only a third of adults believed the government was doing well on "restoring discipline in schools".

The question was the only one in the survey related to education. The results suggest that the proportion of people satisfied with ministers' performance in this area is as low as it is on rates of taxation. And that is from a survey conducted at the height of the coalition's fiscal PR disasters over pasties, grannies and charitable giving.

The poll, commissioned by The Times, also showed that more people thought ministers were doing well on the NHS and on the economy (areas not currently seen as coalition strengths) than on school discipline.

Worse still, education secretary Michael Gove was the least popular of 10 prominent politicians. After a tricky start in the role, he had come to be viewed - certainly by right-wing commentators - as something of a golden boy. So, is the shine wearing off?

The first thing to note is that it is not that straightforward. Opinion on the government's performance on schools has not suddenly slumped, but has actually improved slightly.

The last time Populus asked the school discipline question, in September 2011, only 29 per cent of respondents thought ministers were performing well - the lowest figure for any policy issue, well below the coalition's NHS performance. And this is on a policy area traditionally seen as a Conservative strength. The poll came just a week after Mr Gove launched a drive to improve classroom order, inspired by the riots of the previous month.

In 2005, the party made "school discipline" one of six core themes of its general election manifesto. Robert Hill is a veteran of that era, and was special adviser to Charles Clarke during the latter's spell as Labour education secretary during 2002-04. He does not think that Mr Gove has too much to worry about on discipline.

"I suspect it is, in some ways, a proxy for a sense of safety and security and society being at ease," he said. "Because how much do people really know (about) and understand what is going on in schools? I would be surprised if the numbers more generally on education were not a bit higher."

However, a Populus poll in March found that just 31 per cent of people trusted the Conservatives most to improve school standards compared with 40 per cent for Labour and 16 per cent for the Liberal Democrats.

So what effect might these numbers be having on Mr Gove? Very little, if the experience of Lord Baker, education secretary during 1986-89, is anything to go by. "I don't think I paid any attention to opinion polls because you don't need them," he told TES. "If you are involved in education, you know about the education system.

"You are in constant touch with teachers, headteachers and curriculum designers. And if you are a politician, your constituents make their views on education very clearly known."

The Conservative peer, who introduced the national curriculum, said that he would have done what he thought was right even if it went against public opinion, but argued that the changes he introduced "were very popular with the public".

Mr Hill used internal polling - "like a thermometer, a tracker poll showing how well the government is doing on education" - and said he would be astounded if Mr Gove was not doing the same. But he added: "You would not be discomforted by one set of numbers; you would look at trends over a longer period.

"You understood that if you were to take tough decisions, you were going to put noses out of joint. You were prepared to take a dip."

In this context, Mr Hill cited Charles Clarke introducing university tuition fees in the face of public disapproval in January 2004. And that was when education appeared to matter much more to the public than it does today.

A monthly Ipsos Mori poll (see graph) shows that around a third of people regarded education as an "important issue" then. That was down from a high of 49 per cent in July 1997, soon after Tony Blair's landslide general election victory on an "education, education, education" ticket; but far above the low of 9 per cent in November 2008 at the start of the global financial crisis.

The chart suggests an inverse relationship between people's concerns about the economy and education. Today, with an understandably intense focus on the economy, only 13 per cent of respondents regard education as an important issue.

So it may be a good time for Mr Gove to introduce controversial policies, even if they do poll badly.

There is also some comfort on his poor personal rating. "That may be to do with how well he is really known," Mr Hill said. "I would suspect quite a lot of people didn't know who he was."

The Populus poll agreed, revealing that 63 per cent did not know enough about Mr Gove to have an opinion, compared with just 4 per cent for Prime Minister David Cameron.

The low rating on school discipline could also be partly explained by the "don't knows" polled, which were significantly higher than on other issues.

But Mr Hill said that there is one area where the education secretary "really does need to be careful". He pointed to the TES poll last month, which found that more than 90 per cent of school leaders saw the government as unsupportive of the teaching profession.

Heads are "trusted and influential people", whose opinions are easily transmitted to the rest of society, Mr Hill warned. "I think the government needs to be mindful of that."

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