In the politics of education, certain actions are undoubtedly the right thing to do. Weighting funding towards deprived students to allow them an equal opportunity to excel, for example. Or improving underperforming schools. That’s why all three main Westminster parties support these policies and will continue to do so.
Other things – far greater in number – are open to debate. For example, recognising the intrinsic advantage and cost of delivering A levels, and so funding school sixth forms more than further education colleges. Or, similarly, investing in free early years education for two-income families including higher earners.
The first example almost certainly benefits Labour areas and voters and their families more than their Tory-leaning counterparts, while the latter has advantages for those more likely to vote Conservative.
Either way, the fact is that education policies have political consequences. And given that they are carried out by political governments, it wouldn’t be surprising if, alongside noble talk of national interest, all parties didn’t occasionally, sotto voce, mutter to their supporters about how policies will benefit them.
But that often isn’t the driver for action. Investing in early years may be a great or a terrible idea, and it may benefit Labour voters or Tory voters. But the political benefits that may accrue are treated by most politicians as second-order consequences, which fall behind what they honestly believe to be the right thing to do. That “right thing” is almost always hotly debated, as it should be. But I believe, unfashionably, that almost every action from governments of all stripes ought to be taken in good faith. (There are undoubtedly instances where bad policy is done purely for political advantage. But I’d suggest these are rare.)
All of which brings us to the national funding formula (NFF). It is rumoured that No 10 is collating a series of policies to take forward after the EU referendum (assuming a remain vote) that will unite the Tory party and sow divisions in Labour. An early vote on whether to renew Trident, is one. And I wouldn’t be surprised if progress on the NFF were also on that list.
The effects, after all, will largely be beneficial for Tory MPs, who make up 101 of the 112 signatories to a letter to the prime minister calling for fairer school funding – which means reallocations from higher-funded areas disproportionately represented by Labour MPs (including every single one of the top 10 most generously funded local authorities).
This will be a rare instance in this Parliament of (some) extra money being found that would mostly benefit Tory voters, and No 10 is unlikely to miss such an opportunity.
But the point is that reforming school funding is, as I have written before several times, the right thing to do. The fact that a good policy change could be used for political advantage is just one of those things.
It is worth Labour politicians and other critics of the government’s education agenda remembering that if they want to do the right thing, and simultaneously gain political advantage for their supporters, they need to be in power first.
Jonathan Simons is a former head of education in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit under Gordon Brown and David Cameron