Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

How (not) to solve a problem like education

Can the Conservatives create an education system fit for the future? Not bloody likely, says Jack May 

It is remarkable what passes for talent and promise in the Conservative party these days.

For a man touted as a potential Conservative leadership candidate in the early spring stage of budding, Damian Hinds does not come with a great deal to recommend himself.

After sitting behind his ministerial desk for a good six weeks following Theresa May’s meek-mannered January reshuffle, the education secretary has decided it’s about time to start doing his job. But instead of coming out with a set of policies and a plan for his department that might suggest he’s spent those weeks doing something at work, he’s given a series of interviews that betray only how idle he must have been.

His thoughts on grammar schools are just as regressive and unambitious as those of his Dear Leader, and though we are supposed to cry victory that no new grammars will be allowed, the permission and encouragement of aggressive expansion performs much the same deed via the back door. As we saw in the case of Weald Kent grammar school, which was allowed to open an ‘annexe’ site nine miles away from the main campus, schools will be invited to sprawl into franchise-like constructions, with ‘sites’ and ‘annexing’ becoming new grammar schools in all but name. This remains the Tory principle of giving a hand up to the few that it thinks deserve it, all the while condemning the rest to worse schools and even fewer opportunities.

Meanwhile, Hinds has also said he intends to block attempts to make sex and relationships education (SRE) compulsory – rowing back on any suasory power held by his predecessor, Justine Greening, and kicking the social and developmental problems comprehensive SRE could prevent into the long grass for the sake of the small-minded, provincial conservatism that middle-aged white male Tory ministers of parliament of Hind’s breed do best. Three cheers for progress.

Simon Brook on the importance of SRE

The new secretary’s position on faith schools is the closest thing to a concrete new idea he seems capable of conjuring up, which makes it an even greater shame that his proposals are so weak and worthless. Scrapping the cap on faith schools’ ability to recruit entirely selectively only encourages the worst excessive of these schools’ behaviour – and reference to the issue of SRE is here important again.

Though not all faith schools are guilty of failings on anything like the scale of the Trojan horse scandal – and it would be deeply unfair to suggest so – the impact that many of these schools have on a child’s education can be incredibly damaging. For women, it could be being taught that they should not have particular rights over their bodies, and that there are certain roles and positions that they are not suitable for, while for young LGBT people it can be an assumption that your identity is not valid, or – as is more often the case – that you barely exist. Allowing these schools to become more narrow-minded and less influenced by alternative perspectives by being more selective is a boorish non-starter of a policy.

The most grievous of the education secretary’s failings, however, has to be on the issue of tertiary education. There is nothing more lacklustre than a review – the renowned tool of governments who either want an issue to go away or have no idea what to do – and in this case, it seems phenomenal that an area so ripe for strong political leadership and useful, pragmatic reforms should be kicked out of the field to be managed by some ‘business leader’ (is that Toby Young’s phone ringing again?) in the hope that somebody might come up with something to do. It is a shame on our governance when those we elect to lead us are not bothered (or able) to provide that leadership.

In the meantime, the indications they have given on university policy and tuition fees in particular have been phenomenally idiotic. Cutting tuition fees across the board to £6,000, funded by no longer requiring universities to spend on access and participation measures, would be hilarious in its moronic tendencies if it were not so damaging, cruel, and regressive. Meanwhile, notions of making degrees that teach the skills we really need – medicine, dentistry, and other sciences – more expensive in relative or absolute terms than arts degrees is clearly so poorly considered that you start to fear that neither Hinds nor May has spent more than five minutes thinking about any of it.

At every level of the education system, young people deserve better.

Nobody has yet come up with any convincing package of tertiary education reform that both ensures that economic burden falls on those students who receive the greatest financial dividend while simultaneously guaranteeing that graduates are not lumbered with a debt system that increasingly resembles a Ponzi scheme and that government is not saddled with millions of debtors who will never pay their dues thanks to the ludicrous labyrinthine repayment complex they themselves devised.

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Meanwhile, at the lower levels, nobody – except for Angela Rayner, who tends to be roundly ignored by party leadership – is saying anything useful about early years education, which study after study has found to be the most effective way of equalising life chances. And while Tories slink back to their nasty, divisive preoccupations of grammar schools, faith schools, and ensuring that a measly Victorian understanding of sex and relationships is bestowed on those who happen to be born to misguided parents, Labour has nothing useful to say about the bulk of schooling other than ‘throw more money at it and hope for the best’.

The tirade of naive, regressive, misguided, parochial, and ill-considered education policy has become a spectre haunting the future of our young people.

Will no one rid us of this turbulent beast?


Jack May is a Progress columnist, writer and editor. He tweets at @JackO_May



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