14 September 2007
Gordon Brown and David Cameron might make out they are miles apart when it comes to education policies. But former No 10 adviser Conor Ryan finds plenty of common ground
Education might be merely Gordon Brown's passion, rather than his top priority, but it has already turned into an unlikely weapon in his pre-election armoury. The fraught issue of grammar schools provoked internal dissent against Conservative leader David Cameron over the summer, prompting his slide in the polls and Labour's nine-point lead on education.
Cameron tried to regain the initiative as pupils returned to school this month. He has highlighted proposals from his public services policy group to force 11-year-olds lagging behind in English and maths to stay in primary school for another year or go to summer school.
This drive taps into concerns that despite improvements in test results – there were small rises again this year – more than a quarter of pupils start secondary school without having reached the desired Level Four in English and maths. Such pupils are likely to fall behind in secondary school and are least likely to gain the five good GCSEs seen as essential by employers. By raising the issue, Cameron hopes to highlight Labour's failure to reach its targets for 11-year-olds, although ministers point out that 100,000 more pupils make the grade now each year than did so in 1997.
Yet, despite all the political jostling, there is now greater consensus between the two parties on education than ever. The fuss over selection – a commitment to build no new grammar schools – was intended to signal a Tory preference for city academies, the independent non-feepaying state schools launched by Tony Blair. But after backbench uproar, Cameron conceded there might be new grammars in areas that have retained selection.
In reality, this was a symbolic shift. Even Margaret Thatcher did not open any new grammars when she was prime minister. And Blair's academies draw heavily on her city technology colleges. If anything, the row showed that the parties agree far more on education than they dare admit. After all, Tory support helped Blair to introduce trust schools and defeat Labour opponents. Meanwhile, Blair introduced rigorous phonics to reading lessons, something the Tories had argued for at the 2005 election.
With such conspicuous consensus, however, there is a growing clamour within both parties for policies that distinguish them from their opponents. As chancellor, Brown pledged to match in state schools the current average per-pupil funding of private schools, a way of highlighting Labour's record schools' investment. His plan would increase annual pupil spending from £5,500 to £8,000 but has no date attached: spending will reach £6,600 in 2011. More tangible is his plan to replace or renew every secondary school by 2020 since, when the private school funding pledge is met, above-inflation fee increases in the independent sector would probably have widened rather than narrowed the gap. Shadow chancellor George Osborne has now pledged to match Brown's spending pledges, at least up to 2011.
As prime minister, Brown's first moves reflected his long-held belief in the importance of early years' education and childcare, in which Labour now enjoys a
21-point lead over the Tories. Brown split the education department in two, putting pre-19 education, youth justice and children's welfare in the Department for Children, Schools and Families, headed by his
long-time lieutenant Ed Balls.
The new department keeps David Bell as permanent secretary and retains Jim Knight and Beverley Hughes as ministers for schools and children, respectively, with Blair's former education adviser, Andrew (now Lord) Adonis, still in place as a powerful junior schools minister pushing forward the academy programme.
Post-19 education and training joins science in the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Dius, nicknamed 'juice' in the sector), with John Denham, a one-time opponent of top-up fees, at the helm, and Ian Pearson as science minister. The former head of Blair's Delivery Unit, Ian Watmore, is permanent secretary. He had a long private sector career, culminating in being UK managing director of consultancy Accenture, before joining the civil service in 2004.
Further education colleges now have to deal with two secretaries of state, but the split signalled a new importance for young children's issues, backed by £4bn over three years to provide 3,500 children's centres. Labour will be keen to reap rewards for its Sure Start spending; investment that is popular with even the most bolshie backbencher, although some academics think the jury is out on its effectiveness. Similarly, Denham sought to soothe traditional Labour anxieties with a substantial extension of means-tested student maintenance grants, increasing their reach well into the lower middle classes, despite evidence that student applications are continuing to grow even with the new £3,070 maximum fee.
Where Brown has highlighted children and investment, the Tories have talked up standards, discipline and choice. As with Labour before the 1997 election, they are emphasising standards not structures – early proposals to make school admissions less dependent on catchment areas were dropped. Their compulsory resits proposal was eye-catching, but looks more likely to mean remedial summer schools than repeat years for those missing the grade in national English or maths tests: something Labour tried with mixed results in 1997.
In any case, Brown has already started more remedial lessons for six- and seven-year-olds falling behind. And the Tories' other main proposals – smaller schools or houses within large comprehensives, more parent-promoted schools, greater flexibility for new providers and more financial help for struggling pupils – reflect the existing direction of government policy. Even controversial plans to 'bus' children from failing inner-city schools to successful suburban ones reflect recent government changes that expand the choice of schools available to pupils, through accessing free transport.
On discipline, Cameron had even less new to offer: more voluntary sector units for disruptive pupils, something the government wants too. He also wants to give head teachers 'more power' over expulsions by abolishing independent appeals panels. However, only 130 of the 9,170 pupils excluded each year are reinstated, and head teachers' leaders believe that court appeals would be more costly and less favourable. Even on compulsory setting – a 'grammar stream in every subject' – Labour and the Tories largely agree. The Tory emphasis on setting (and streaming) is intended to offer backbenchers an alternative to the 11-plus and to position the party against the 'progressive' education establishment. But Labour has keenly promoted setting, and is championing new ways to stretch and support pupils according to their abilities, with an expanded programme for gifted pupils due soon.
Shadow schools' secretary Michael Gove admits: 'Both government and Opposition say that rigorous teaching methods should be championed in the teeth of opposition from whatever interest groups might oppose them.' But he contends that it is legitimate to question the government's commitment to that agenda.
Cameron's attempt to wrap himself in Blair's mantle on choice also seems redundant. Before Brown became prime minister, the Tories believed he would halt the expansion of city academies. But instead he has backed them and kept Blairite minister Adonis in charge, albeit with tweaks to placate Labour backbench critics – a stronger role for universities, more consultation with local authorities and requiring the national curriculum in core subjects. The only significant change – exempting universities and good state schools from the £2m endowment expected of private sponsors – deflated a Tory wheeze to differentiate themselves from Labour on academies. And the biggest local authority deal, with Manchester City Council, was announced under Blair.
Perhaps more significantly, Balls said he wanted to speed progress towards the 400 academies promised by Blair in November 2006. 'We should accelerate the pace of the academies programme over the next few years, with a much greater role for universities,' he told MPs in July. More than 130 academies will be open by next September.
Nevertheless, Gove still argues that Brown lacks enthusiasm for reform. 'It is easier to see convergence between our approach and Blair's policies on schools, as expressed in the  schools white paper, than there is with the Brown/Balls approach,' he says. 'I accept they have respect for parents' wishes, but they want to downplay parental choice as a lever for improvement. They deliberately caricature advocates of choice as being in thrall to a marketised system. We want more freedom for schools, either as academies or through new providers, and we believe choice could be a useful lever to help raise standards.'
But this view is strongly rejected by Adonis. 'Choice is a means to an end for us,' he says. 'All the elements of reform are about moving towards a system where every parent can access a good local school. The big difference between us and the Tories is our willingness to invest. Promoting diversity requires money, and we are investing £6bn a year in capital, including academies, where they invested £600m.'
And ministers are working to create a new 'third sector' of academies, breaking the divide between state and private schools. Academies are already independent of local authorities. Existing sponsors such as the United Learning Trust started from the independent sector.
This month, two independent schools, Belvedere in Liverpool and William Hulme's in Manchester, joined the state sector, scrapping fees and selection in return for government funding. Two Bristol independent schools, Colston Girls' School and Bristol Cathedral School, will join next year. Up to 25 more – including other cathedral schools – could follow, while others, such as Wellington College, are becoming sponsors. The government will also soon announce a group of top state schools that will run academies replacing weak schools.
Adonis believes this marks a fundamental shift in the system. 'We're creating a modern direct grant school, but we're doing so without selection and without fees,' he says, referring to the partially fee-paying grammar schools that went private after the 11-plus was scrapped. 'What you will get is a large third sector within academies significantly blurring the edges between state and private schools and giving the private sector a direct stake in managing state schools for the first time.'
None of which suggests a great ideological battle between the two parties. In England, only the Liberal Democrats remain outside this growing consensus, opposed to league tables, testing and tuition fees. But even their policies are being reviewed – their higher education consultation paper in July raised questions that could lead to policy change on tuition fees. And leader Menzies Campbell's promotion of the moderniser David Laws as children's and schools spokesman might lead to some shift towards more consumer-friendly schools' policies.
Also, as the Tories are abandoning their former approach to post-16 education, which some saw as elitist, there is likely to be cross-party support for legislation this autumn to keep young people longer in education or training. The aim is to improve skills and ensure fewer unemployable adults, and was backed by Lord Leitch's report on skills last year. Ministers see this as vital to lift England up the international league tables for staying in education, where we currently languish at nineteenth out of 27 developed nations, and improving on the 71% of 19-year-olds who currently get five good GCSEs or the vocational equivalent.
If the 'participation age' is raised, all young people would stay in education or training until 18. Those who are employed would have to work towards a qualification or train part-time. Two groups would be affected – the 10% of 16–18-year-olds whom statistics suggest are not in education, employment or training (Neets), and 13% who are working without accredited training.
Qualifications are also being reformed, with new specialised diplomas in subjects such as engineering and IT from next year and improved apprenticeships. There are also incentives, with education maintenance allowances worth up to £30 a week. But Brown believes these measures are insufficient without compulsion.
However, forcing the most reluctant learners to continue in education would require fines and other court orders, and compulsory training for those at work is unlikely to be popular with either small employers or young employees. After all, few exercise their current right to study.
Moreover, the policy might not be as popular as ministers expected. A YouGov poll in late July showed that the idea was backed by 46% of people compared with 41% against, a much narrower margin than other Brown flagship policies.
Nevertheless, such is the degree of cross-party consensus that the measure seems set to enjoy Tory support, despite a traditional Conservative view that incentives would be better than compulsion. After the grammars row, Cameron and Gove are apparently determined to avoid being seen as backward-looking and opposed to opportunity for all.
And this consensus in England extends to university participation and tuition fees. The Conservatives joined the Liberal Democrats in opposing Labour over variable tuition fees in 2005. Cameron has since ensured that his party not only accepts top-up fees, but his spokespeople have given positive signals to vice-chancellors that they would back higher fees when the fees system is reviewed in 2009.
Ironically, this is one area where the Tories could outflank Labour, given Denham's and Brown's early scepticism about top-up fees, but where political expediency means they are unlikely to do so. The universities' best hope is that both parties agree to an independent commission, which would avoid the issue becoming a party political football at the next election.
Schools and universities will hope that the new convergence between Labour and Tories offers them some stability after 20 years of continuous reforms. But don't expect either party to make a virtue of consensus. When an election approaches, the demand for fresh initiatives will grow, and any policy differences will be exaggerated. In truth though, the real political battles will be elsewhere.
Conor Ryan was Tony Blair's senior education adviser from 2005 to 2007