For more than 40 years, pollsters Ipsos Mori have asked people to name the most important issues affecting the country. Looking at the patterns that emerge is like a bird’s-eye view of contemporary history. During recessions, the economy shoots to the top of people’s list of concerns. In the 1970s and early 80s “inflation” even got its own category. Now foreign affairs, terrorism and immigration top the list.
The percentage of people citing education as one of the most important issues grew steadily through the Thatcher and Major governments, peaking at 54 per cent just before the 1997 election, in part at least because of Labour’s focus on the issue during the campaign. It then gradually fell to about 20-25 per cent in 2007 before dipping during the economic crash and then rising again to similar levels during the 2010 election. From mid-2011 onwards it dipped again and has been almost consistently at 15 per cent or lower since then – falling to 12 per cent this October.
On the face of it, this is a good news story for schools. If people aren’t citing education as an issue, then presumably they’re fairly happy with it, despite the talk of failure and falling Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) scores from politicians and the media. And indeed, research conducted for the Department for Education in 2014 found that 90 per cent of parents were happy with their child’s school – including 85 per cent whose children attended a school considered by Ofsted to “require improvement”.
But this cannot explain the whole story. For a start, surveys of parents have always shown high levels of satisfaction with their own children’s education – but that hasn’t stopped the wider question of standards, curriculum or investment being seen as an important national issue. The really odd thing about the dip in interest since mid 2011 is that it has coincided with the most dramatic programme of change English schools have seen since the late 1980s. We have a new curriculum, an almost entirely new exam system and a fundamental transition of power from local to central government and from authorities to federations of schools. And that’s before one considers the cuts to school funding.
In other countries, any one of these could provoke a political storm: just look at the controversy over the “common core” curriculum in the US. Here the public seem to have looked at the reforms – and the fierce debates within the education sector – and shrugged their shoulders.
So why has there been so little interest in the changes? One reason may be that neither main party has wanted to talk about education over the past few years – the government because it realised that there wasn’t huge political capital to be made out of structural reform and changes to exams, and Labour because it hasn’t been sure of its own position on some key questions. At the last election education was barely mentioned. It would be fascinating to know how many members of the public without a child in Year 9 or 10, even know that GCSEs are being reformed.
Is this lack of interest a good thing? On one hand, it takes some political heat out of education and might give politicians and teachers some breathing space to implement the reforms. On the other, it risks a national lack of focus on what surely is one of the most important issues for our future. While the quality of most schools is high, we still have a huge attainment gap between poor pupils and their wealthier peers. And we have a growing shortage of teachers. In 2016, perhaps we should all take some time out from arguing with each other to check whether anyone else is paying attention.
Sam Freedman is executive director of programmes at Teach First and a former government policy adviser @samfr