It is a universal law that the longer any debate about education policy goes on the more likely it is that someone will be accused of having political or – even worse – ‘ideological’ motives. Teachers, parents and even politicians are all prone to suggesting that things would be much better if we took the politics out of education. According to this line of reasoning education is an enterprise that would be far more successful if it were left well alone by interfering governments and meddling politicians. From this point of view the politician who steps into the education policy-arena is viewed in the same way as the urban fox: perfectly acceptable in its natural environment but a nuisance when it ends up where it doesn’t belong and starts rummaging through the bins.
Taken at face value the claim that education should be spared from politics is absurd. Like all areas of public policy education inevitably involves value judgments. As a result, to refer to a particular position as political or ideological is truistic. The suggestion that we should just let teachers teach or that we should focus on what works (both popular convictions) are no less ideological positions than the argument that we should reintroduce the 11-plus. Moreover, there is a strong principled argument for retaining political control of education. In a democratic society the ultimate arbiters of what gets taught and how should be those who are accountable at the ballot-box. Finally, politicians themselves have strong practical reasons for interfering in education; the public care about what happens in our schools, and they expect politicians to at least attempt to exert some control over it.
In the end it is neither possible nor desirable to separate politics from education. Those who continue to advocate doing so are either naïve in that they genuinely believe that such separation is possible or dangerous in that they are seeking to suppress and exclude views that conflict with their own by labelling them as politically motivated. Nonetheless, there are some important ways in which politics and political considerations do get in the way of effective education policy, and it is this that accounts for the enduring appeal of the plea for separation.
One obvious way in which politics makes effective policy less likely occurs is through the electoral cycle. Governments, generally speaking, have short life-spans. Good education policy requires time for careful planning, rigorous evaluation and considered implementation. As a result there is a direct conflict between the relentless desire of governments to always be seen to be doing something and the demands of effective policy. Another important consequence of this short-termism is that it prevents ministers from developing genuine expertise in their policy area. In the ten years prior to Gove’s appointment in 2010 there were six different holders of the position of Secretary of State for Education. In such a short time it would be unreasonable to expect even the best and brightest – let alone government ministers – to develop anything that can fairly be called expertise in the area of education.
Another way that politics undermines the quest for good education policy is through the elevation of presentation above effectiveness. For understandable reasons governments tend to focus more on how something looks than what it actually does. All too often this leads to policies that are confused or even completely ineffective. The pupil premium provides a good example of the former. The idea that schools should get extra money for pupils on free school meals is entirely sensible. So sensible in fact that it has been in place for years. Under the complex funding formula used to determine school budgets schools already receive a significant premium (estimated at £4,000 by the NFER) for pupils on free school meals. Rather than increase that funding or introduce guidance as to how it should be spent the coalition government instead opted to introduce an extra premium (now about £900), presumably so they could be seen to be doing something about the attainment gap and pretend that what they were doing was somehow innovative. The slightly bizarre result is that schools are now expected to ring-fence a small portion (about a fifth) of the total amount they receive for pupils on free school meals and demonstrate to Ofsted how they are using that portion alone to narrow the attainment gap within the school. The question of whether this is really an effective way of narrowing the gap is obscured by a screen of self-congratulation about how progressive the ‘new’ measure is.
Whilst some of these problems are inevitable, there are things that could be done to make the political system more conducive to thoughtful education policy. First, we should promote bi-partisanship in key areas. The only way to overcome the problem of short-termism is to work towards a general acceptance that some policy changes should require at least an element of political consensus. Changes to the national curriculum and qualification reform in particular would benefit from being exempted from the relentless desire to change things. In an ideal world changes to either would be made on a bi-partisan basis (and with genuine consultation) to ensure a certain level of continuity. This might be unlikely in the current political climate but it doesn’t need to be – there could be important roles for a select committee or even an independent commission in making this happen. Once an initial precedent has been sent that such change should be bi-partisan it will be difficult to revert back to partisan short-termism.
Second, if we assume that politicians are not going to be bringing the policy expertise to the table then we need to look elsewhere. Theoretically the civil service should be filling this gap. However, in reality the civil service incentivises genuine expertise little better than political parties. The model civil servant – a highly-educated generalist with little experience beyond the corridors of power – is strikingly similar to the model politician. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that ministers feel comfortable relying on bright young SPAD’s for policy advice when the alternative offers little different. More senior posts within the DfE should go to those who have a strong background in education, and junior civil servants should be encouraged to specialise rather than develop shallow knowledge across a range of policy areas.
Rather than implausibly suggesting that education would be better if we somehow cleansed it of the pernicious influence of politics we should instead be honest about the impact of our political system on policy making. By recognising the tensions between effective policy and good politics we can start to unpick where things go wrong. If we can do this we might be able to reach a position in which the fact that education is inherently political is seen as a positive. For now describing something as ‘political’ will likely remain a term of abuse.