I am not sure if it is a peculiarity of British politics or if other countries have a season of party conferences that coincides with the start of the academic year. During these conferences political parties decamp from London to discuss what they need to do to win the next election or to decide what is best for the country. The Liberal Democrats congregated a couple of weeks ago, the Labour Party met this week and the Conservative party will confer next week. As the Headmaster of a British School I am always keen to see what each of the major parties has to say about education.
Politics and education rarely sit comfortably together; one is generally short term, the other is intrinsically long term. That is not to say that there have been no political movements that have resulted in beneficial progress. Political parties have widened access to education providing wide swathes of the population with opportunities they were once denied. The problem for education comes when politicians seek to bend the curriculum to their own view. In Britain, the watershed moment for education came back in 1976 when the then Prime Minister, James Callaghan made the now notorious (at least with educationalists) “Secret Garden of the Curriculum Speech”. During his discourse he claimed control of the curriculum as a political issue. Subsequently, there have been few governments that have not sought to influence, both the structure of the British educational system and its content. Allowing politicians control of what is taught in schools (and indeed how it is taught in schools) almost inevitably leads to the curriculum being used as a political football. The last Conservative Government engaged in one of the widest reforms of the curriculum ever seen, with large scale changes to GCSE and A level the result.
The Labour Party’s shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, talked this week of structural and systemic reform of the national educational system and made no real mention of the curriculum (phew), while the Lib Dem’s Layla Moran launched an attack on grammar schools, excessive testing, some independent schools and the inspection body Ofsted. Now we await the Conservatives from Brighton. I’m rather hoping that the curriculum is not on Damian Hind’s agenda. If previous speeches give any clue, preserving the status quo with regard to exam rigour, giving head teachers greater autonomy and reducing teacher workload via different assessment methods are likely to feature.
Much of what is being said at the party conferences this year moves British education back to where we were when I started teaching (except with better buildings and more IT). I remain hopeful that one day we will have politicians who understand that education cannot be run on a “between elections” timetable and that all change has an impact on the children who live through their ideological whims.
Education is a long, slow and steady process. Politics isn’t. Perhaps the boldest move that any politician could make at this point is to leave well alone.