Education is arguably the most important policy area in our society simply because it affects every aspect of life. If a population is better educated things automatically improve, be it economically, socially, culturally, even environmentally.
But it’s also an area vulnerable to the whims of political ideology which was demonstrated most recently by the Conservative’s spokeswoman for education in Wales, Angela Burns, calling for a return to grammar schools and selective schooling.
The most disappointing aspect of this call back to outdated educational elitism is that it’s also the easiest, and laziest, solution to a very important point. It amounts to no more than handpicking the ones who test well – in one exam, once in their life – and leave the others behind.
At a time when an entire generation of young people is staring down the barrel of a hopeless future, this is when decisions matter the most. And old ideas just won’t do.
The harder road, and the one that needs to be taken, is to show every pupil why their education matters, and make them work harder to find their potential whether it be academically or vocationally.
This boils down to changing attitudes.
Labour laid the platform for this change to take place and showed what can happen when education, not ideology, comes first.
With its academies programme it took substandard schools away from local authorities that had failed to improve the attainment of its pupils while trusting those who were performing well to continue to do so.
This targeted approach encouraged a new age of aspiration among young people from poorer backgrounds and helped change attitudes with evidence showing them to improve the potential of pupils by broadening their ideas and introducing them to new subjects.
Politicians – and political ideas – can be beneficial to schools when they give them what they need to be able to manage themselves.
Providing 35,000 more teachers in 10 years, creating more than 1,000 new schools and refurbishing crumbling ones, increasing teachers’ pay to attract better candidates, reducing the pupil-to-teacher ratio to give more students better access to personal learning – these are all accomplishments of a Labour government that identified that the best way to change attitudes in education was by giving schools what they needed to change themselves.
What happened was a rapid increase in standards, higher test scores and more pupils from middle- and working-class backgrounds going on to university and training than ever before – all led by schools and teachers given the help they needed.
This is in stark contrast to Michael Gove’s ideological approach to education which displays a disdain for successful locally controlled schools and shows the damage that can be done when ideology takes the place of evidence-based policies.
A manipulation of Labour’s academies programme, taking even successful schools out of the hands of local control, and the diversion of public money away from the schools that need it towards free schools, has seen an almost instant drop in standards and morale, and confusion among teachers and despair in the very people education is supposed to serve.
It’s the responsibility of schools to inspire pupils, to change attitudes and to improve attainment and it’s the job of politicians to help them do that – not stand in the way.
By calling for a policy in which the state decides upon the academic future of a 14-year-old, Angela Burns has highlighted the failings of the Tory education agenda.
Their outdated ideas offer nothing in the way of help for young people at a time when they need it most.
If politics is to be good for pupils it should help create the environment in which schools can expose them to as much learning as possible. Whether they decide upon the academic route or vocational route must be left up to them no matter what their background. And it should be schools, not politicians, that lead the way.
Michael Davies is a writer and a member of Progress. He tweets @mjdavies1
academies, education, grammar schools, Michael Gove, schools, Wales