As debate over public spending descends into the absurd (with 0% spending rises and ministerial bullying of journalists), its easy to forget that behind all the bluster there are some real policy debates going on.
Perhaps the most significant of these debates concerns education, and more specifically, the future of our schools system. The Government, to its credit, put education front and centre when it came to power. For a time too, even a critic must admit, it put real effort into a reformist agenda, with - I believe - the genuine motivation of improving schools.
But for some time now that motivation has gone, and the Government has preoccupied itself with just treading water, manipulating the 'outputs' to disguise the deteriorating quality of the 'input'. Education steadily marginalised as 'schools' became just tools with which social ills will be fixed.
Conservative thinking on education has taken on board all the efforts, mistakes and neglect of the past 12 years, and been informed by the many examples of what works and what doesn't. On Tuesday Michael Gove - Shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families - laid out the broad thrust of their policy in a speech to the Royal Society of the Arts, entitled 'What is Education For'. To read the whole speech, see here.
Acknowledging the steady and intended transformation of state schools into hubs for "children's services", Mr Gove notes the eclipsing of education itself: "I fear that duties on schools, and teachers, to fulfil a variety of noble purposes - everything from promoting community cohesion to developing relationships with other public bodies, trusts, committees and panels gets in the way of their core purpose – education."
The statistics on educational attainment, and the gulf that is emerging (not diminishing) between well educated children (from both state and private) and the poorly educated, are depressing:
"Schools have to clear a very specific hurdle – they have to make sure 30% of their pupils get 5 Cs or better at GCSE, including English and Maths...
This very narrow definition, and particular kind of accountability, has a tragic skewing effect on the education many children enjoy. Weaker schools, desperate to avoid being branded failing, concentrate their efforts on a narrow band of pupils – those on the borderline of a C grade – and they lead those pupils towards the sort of qualifications which may be easier to pass – but which do not serve those pupils’ interests best.
Across the educational landscape, qualifications which promise easier routes to a pass mark are growing in popularity. Media Studies GCSE entries have increased by 43% in just two years - from 41,027 candidates in 2004/5 to 59,071 in 2006/7.
At A-level the rise over time has also been significant. In 1997 just 8,954 students took media studies A-level. By 2006 the number had risen by 157%. Now I have no particular prejudice against media studies – or any other subject per se - as part of a truly rounded education. But my views aren’t the one that matter. The views of admissions tutors at Cambridge University, however, do.
He goes on ...
"Of the 75,000 children on free school meals each year (about 1 in 8 of all pupils), four out of ten fail to get even a single ‘C’ grade GCSE. Only 189 of these 75,000 go on to get three As at A Level – compared with the 175 three A’s pupils produced by just one school, Eton. Independent schools, which educate just 7% of pupils, produce more pupils who get three A's at A Level than every comprehensive school put together."
On history ...
"Ofsted has reported that "pupils knowledge and understanding of key historical facts is not good enough; their knowledge is fragmented. Young people's knowledge is very often patchy and specific, they are unable to sufficiently link discrete historical events to answer big questions, form overviews and demonstrate strong conceptual understanding. Young people's sense of chronology is relatively weak and they are generally unable to relate a longer narrative of the story of Britain."
A recent survey of students entering a Russell Group university to read history asked them to name the British general at Waterloo, the monarch during the Armada, Brunel's profession, a single 19th century Prime Minister and the location of the Boer War.
The survey found that just over one question in five was answered correctly."
That is a damning indictment, particularly considering the vocal commitments the Government has made to both education and citizenship.
"Faced with this deterioration in standards top private schools are abandoning normal GCSEs. The number of pupils in independent schools taking the, more rigorous, international GCSE more than doubled from 2007 to 2008, from just over 15,000 to over 40,000. 46% of independent schools entered at least one pupil for an iGCSE in 2008 (iGCSE Maths is particularly popular).
... [but] the Government does not let state schools do the iGCSE so there is a growing gap between opportunities for richer children and the rest. Ed Balls recently refused to give state schools funding for the iGCSE, continues to refuse to let the iGCSE count in the league tables, and recently attacked it, extraordinarily, as not being of a "sufficiently high standard."
Gove goes onto outline Conservative plans (page 11 onwards). They pick up the baton dropped by this Government, carrying forward the program of reform that will return power (and just importantly responsibility) to schools and parents. It's an ambitious program, and it will run into the problem of vested interests and bedded in bureaucracy immediately out of the gate. But it is the far better program, if compared to last weeks Children's White Paper from the Government. That White paper, in fairness (and in credit to the Conservatives) plans to reverse the trends established in recent years. But ultimately it does so grudgingly, against its instincts; for political ends. At least Gove gives the impression that he is committed to education reform because he believes it.