Are the Tories suffering from misguided modesty over their education record?
The Tories are facing a difficult time in the polls of late. Writer and consultant John Oxley argues that they have more to boast about on their education record than many think.
The Tories have few things to boast about these days. They are being hammered by the state of the economy and the cost-of-living crisis, while years of infighting have left them looking divided and chaotic. Taken together, these issues have seen them slump in the polls, staring down the barrel of a historic defeat. With that in mind, it seems odd that they are not making more of one of the identifiable successes of their time in office – their improvements to the education system.
Education reform was one of the flagship endeavours of the coalition era. It was controversial – both in its push towards the academisation of almost all schools in England and the rejigging of the curriculum, beefing up secondary qualifications and a new drive towards phonics in primary schools. The changes were Michael Gove’s pet project, and as perhaps the most industrious minister the Tories have had, he made them stick.
While other policies have petered out, academisation has largely been achieved. Over 80 per cent of secondary schools are now academies, and around 40 per cent of primary schools, while more than 600 free schools have opened. GCSE and A-Level exams have been radically changed, with more rigorous curricula and an end to modular exams.
These measures appear to be succeeding. The United Kingdom has climbed in PISA tests, the OECD’s assessment for educational attainment. In 2009, the country sat 25th for reading, but came 14th in the most recent round of testing, jumping ahead of several European rivals. The country also improved in maths and science, coming in the top 20 in every metric for the first time. It is a significant relative improvement for pupils who received the bulk of their education under Tory-led governments. Lower down the age range, the number of children meeting expectations in phonics tests has risen from below 60 per cent to nearly 75 per cent.
The success has been lost in the chaos of the past few years
This should be an obvious thing for the Conservatives to boast about. It has not only achieved successful outcomes but fits their ideology too. The move to academies has been about decentralisation and a push towards internal competition – something that should sit quite well with Tory politicians and voters. It has also been done despite reducing education spending. Yet the success has been lost in the chaos of the past few years.
Perhaps it stems from the Tories’ desire for reinvention. The coalition has been largely forgotten by the party, with many of its leading lights already out of parliament. Both Theresa May and Boris Johnson sought to distance themselves from austerity, while Rishi Sunak wasn’t even in parliament when Michael Gove’s time at education ended. The policies, and the success that stems from them, feel like a different age.
Equally, the Conservatives are tied in other knots around schools. The impact of covid closures, and the legacy for both education and welfare, now overshadow earlier success, while the government still must deal with the ongoing problems around recruiting and retaining teachers. Some Conservative MPs also have concerns about sex education and safeguarding that they seem keener to talk about than educational attainment.
It would be a mistake for the party to neglect these successes. It often feels like the party has little to champion for 13 years of power, but this is a set of policies it prioritised which is now delivering. Equally, boosting education could really matter to important voting blocks that the Tories are currently losing out on – especially parents in their 40s, where the party is starting to slide.
The Conservative managed to fight the 2017 and 2019 elections on a veneer of reinvention. Next time, it will be harder to escape their record. On education, at least, they have some successes to boast of, and they should be leaning into this.
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