Philip Dixon takes a look at the education debate in the general election campaign, and examines what it means for Wales
Jeremy Corbyn deserves some credit for getting education onto the election radar screen. At a meeting of ATL’s senior management team just after the last General Election we had to admit that despite our best efforts there had hardly been a flicker of interest during the campaign. It was a far cry from the 1997 election when New Labour had made ‘Education, education, education’ its top slogan.
Corbyn wants to shine the spotlight on the reintroduction of selective grammar schools, the threat of children being crammed ‘like sardines’ into classrooms, and the impact of shrinking schools’ budgets. I suspect that the first is not quite the toxic issue that many on his side would like it to be. The second prompted the Tories to point to rising class sizes in Wales. The third prong might have more traction but even then he needs to be careful in his claims.
At his first election rally in Wales Corbyn said: “In Wales it is different, because you’ve got a government that is determined to properly fund education”. It was an interesting use of tense. History is not on his side. For starters there had been a big ‘Under New Management’ sign hanging on the (Welsh) Department for Education and Skills since last May when the last Lib Dem AM, Kirsty Williams, became Wales’ Cabinet Secretary for Education. She and her party will want to take the credit for the increased spending on the Pupil Development Grant and her very targeted approach to reducing infant class sizes, and will repel any attempt for London Labour to park their talks on that lawn. The other problem Corbyn faces is that Labour’s record on education in Wales is not unequivocal as my recent book, Testing Times, showed. When it comes to funding the record is not one to boast about.
When devolution began spending per pupil was virtually no different between England and Wales. By 2010, when the Welsh Government stopped publishing comparative data, it had grown to a whopping big £604. Now to be fair spending in Wales had increased year on year since 1999. Ironically the then Welsh governments trotted out the line used by the current Westminster education department that spending had never been higher. The problem was that England’s spend was increasing at a faster rate. ‘Welsh’ Labour’s education trajectory might have been more welcome in some quarters but the funding policies of ‘New Labour’ were much to be preferred.
The impact of the comparative underfunding is still disputed, even the redoubtable Leighton Andrews who did so much to wake up our complacent education system jumped through hoops to try to make out that funding wasn’t a key problem, but it is noticeable that within a few years the spending gap was being mirrored by a performance gap in GCSE results. In 1999 Wales had out performed England. By 2006 when the per pupil funding gap was hitting the £400 mark England had overtaken Wales in terms of GCSEs. If the unions really want to rattle the cage about funding then perhaps they should do so along the lines of ‘poorer schools mean poorer results – look at the lessons from Wales.’
But perhaps there is a more fundamental problem here: is it fair or helpful to use the performance of one government to try to influence the election of another? Rhetorically it can be very effective – think of Cameron’s now notorious description of Offa’s Dyke as ‘the line between life and death’. But subsequent analysis by the OECD showed that claim was unfounded: each NHS had strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps I’m an idealist but it would be good to have policy from all parties rooted less in rhetoric and more in research. It could restore some longed for credibility to much of our political debate. It would also make for better decisions in government.
One of the benefits of being part of a United but Devolved Kingdom is that we can learn from different approaches. We have something of a laboratory in which different policies can be tested and evaluated. But that needs a cool head.
If Theresa May wins a landslide victory then education policies and practices on these islands will become even more diverse. Take the controversial grammars for instance. Athough the unions will cry ‘No Pasarán!’ their inability to stop the Academisation programme means that by 2022 many sizeable towns in England will have a grammar school. We might not want them here in Wales but we should still see if they can teach us anything. For starters if we are opposed to selective education then we need to look more closely at the covert selection processes that exist in all systems – selection by house price being one of the more pernicious. But they might also make us think afresh about how we in Wales can ensure that our academically gifted but economically challenged youngsters can be better served.
Mr Corbyn is right: education needs an airing at this election. It will continue to need one after June 8th.