When two-term US presidents are reaching the end of their time in office, their focus often switches away from the short-term domestic agenda, and towards foreign policy and bigger areas of social and economic change. The aim is to outline a vision, and to set a longer-term legacy.
David Cameron isn’t there yet. But he has fought (and won) his last election. And in a speech last week, he set out a similar “bucket list” of things that he wants to achieve before stepping down towards the end of this Parliament. Education is right at the heart of that. What’s interesting is less the various policy crumbs (expansion of parenting programmes, more funding for the National Citizen Service and a greater role for sport in schools) and more around illustrating what is sometimes grandly called “the theory of change”. That is to say, how does the prime minister think things are going to get better in schools and what is he going to do to make that happen?
And Mr Cameron’s theory of change is by no means textbook Conservatism. In the speech, he waxed lyrical about early years, and promised intervention with the most challenging families, with the type of belief in the benign hand of government that you would normally find among the Opposition. As he said, “I’m not against state intervention. I’m the prime minister who started the Troubled Families programme – perhaps the most intensive form of state intervention there is.”
He also rejected, explicitly, a minimalist attitude to social intervention and an uncritical approach to the power of the market that some others in his party subscribe to. He spoke strongly about the power of extracurricular activities, of character and of schools being at the hubs of communities and improving life chances for all. As someone who contributed to speeches for Gordon Brown, these were paragraphs I could have drafted for him.
But he also gave a full-throated defence of a school system that prizes knowledge. In a paean to traditionalist models of education, he said that “dismissing knowledge is frankly dismissing the life chances of our children”, arguing that only by being aware of the past and of events and facts can all pupils be supported to learn more. And he praised the “tiger mother” approach to trying and trying again, the setting of high standards and thriving under them.
One lazy caricature of the prime minister is that he has no philosophy. This speech gives the lie to that.
Jonathan Simons is a former head of education in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit under Gordon Brown and David Cameron