The Conservative Party manifesto is much more interesting than it may first appear to education watchers.
Commentary has focused on it being deliberately short so as to not create any hostages to fortune. And indeed it is – just 59 pages overall. The schools section, at 650 words, is also just over half the length of its comparator from the 2017 manifesto.
More specifically, it seems clear that, across the manifesto as a whole, the only things that make it in are things that are new or things that are staying but are there to draw a dividing line with Labour. In other words, absence of something in there doesn’t mean it’s going.
But although this approach has been taken to avoid the mistakes of loose commitments that partly sunk the Tories in 2017, being short isn’t without risks itself. I also think it's hugely significant that the Tories chose not to draw a dividing line on some specific education issues.
Election 2019: What are the Conservatives' plans for education?
(In the spirit of full disclosure, it’s worth me pointing out that I am director of education at a public policy consultancy called Public First. Rachel Wolf, who is my boss, took leave from the company to co-write the Conservative manifesto in a personal capacity.)
This manifesto is clearly a campaigning document, not a detailed and exhaustive programme for government. And given the key personnel around the Tories, if Boris Johnson wins and those people stay, they’re not going to stand still. They don’t want to be in government because they think they ought to (hello, Theresa May team!) or because they think they’ll be good at it (hello, David Cameron team!). People should not mistake brevity for a lack of ambition.
But nevertheless, a short manifesto is asking voters for a lot on trust. And if manifestos have a purpose, surely it’s about getting beyond a simple issue of trust – by indicating to voters what you will do, and then being guided by those commitments in office if you win.
So in the short term, having this lack of detail does expose the Conservatives to attacks because of what they’ve not committed to. Take the pupil premium, for example – no reference in the manifesto. Will they scrap it? I don’t expect so for a minute. But for the want of a sentence, there’s no protection against the accusation that dedicated funding for the poorest and vulnerable is on its way out. I suspect there will be some clarification on this coming up in order to neutralise any attack.
It’s not just from the traditional opposition that a short document creates vulnerabilities. The Tories could also justifiably take fire from their reforming wing. There’s not a single reference to academies. No explicit commitment to the EBacc. No mention at all about Teach First – a manifesto staple for the past 15 years or more. Where is the explicit vision of the team who powered the Gove education agenda in the run-up to 2010? Given that many of those people are now in very senior roles within No 10, it is implausible that this whole agenda will disappear – but it might have been reassuring to have a more explicit signal of intent, and if they win, they’ll need to move quickly to address this.
Moreover, the risk of “trust us” is that some things are not in there because they are being dropped. The 3 million apprenticeships target has gone. The 100 free schools a year target is out. Education secretary Gavin Williamson’s commitment to beat Germany at technical education, made back in the mists of time at the Conservative Party conference in 2019, doesn’t feature.
Ofsted, by contrast, features heavily. We know, given the amount of airtime it has had from Boris Johnson down, that Labour’s commitment to abolish it is seen as a real dividing line by the Tories, and one they think they’re on the right side of with parents. Similarly, a commitment to address underperforming schools draws a contract with perceived Labour weakness on testing and accountability.
But what of grammar schools – beloved of Tory activists, and hated by most of the education sector? Not a word – not even a commitment to maintain the small expansion fund created as part of the May compromise in the last Parliament. And what of private schools? Given Labour’s positioning, it would be remarkably easy to make an argument that Labour is seeking to close down opportunity and parental choice, whereas the Conservatives were committed to maintaining it. It is no accident that these two areas haven’t been mentioned. The Tories clearly see, at this time, no electoral advantage in sticking up for these two elements of the education system.
Much like the dog in the night time, it may be what didn’t get mentioned that is the more significant for education in the next Parliament.
Jonathan Simons is a former government adviser, and director of education at the public policy consultancy Public First. Rachel Wolf, founding partner of Public First, took leave from the company to co-write the Conservative manifesto in a personal capacity