Time to take politics out of education to help our schools succeed – Fiona Spellman

FOLLOWING the landslide victory for Boris Johnson, it’s time our politicians delivered on their promises for the North.

Can a consensus now emerge on education policy following the election?

This election shows that the North can no longer be relied upon to vote with tribal loyalty. Instead, politicians of all persuasions must now make and win their case.

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In this campaign, the intensified competition for votes shone a light on the enormous regional disparities in our country. Constituencies that had long found themselves ‘safe’ from the intensity of political campaigning in marginal seats have instead become key battlegrounds.

Reform of education must be effective from the outset, argues Fiona Spellman.

The Conservatives now have a strategic interest in delivering improvements for Leave-voting areas, not just in seeing through the Brexit process, but addressing some of the inequities which led many to vote to leave the EU.

People in many of these constituencies may have voted for Boris more than the Tories, and for Brexit more than the Conservatives, but they also crossed a line that the Conservatives will hope to convert into longer-term support.

The current Tory offer on education is lacking in the ambition needed to meet the challenge of improving outcomes for disadvantaged children in these communities.

According to analysis by the Education Policy Institute, the Conservative manifesto will result in a relative shift in funding away from schools with higher levels of disadvantage. This risks further widening the gap at a time when schools are already battling the effects of rising child poverty. Longer Ofsted inspections will do nothing to help fix the issue if we don’t resource our schools properly to deal with the challenges they face.

As a former teacher myself, I share the frustration many in the profession feel at the lack of evidence behind many policies, and the fact that the expertise of teachers is so often ignored in the decisions that affect their lives.

Our current accountability system often punishes and rewards the wrong schools, too often reflecting context rather than performance, and many talented teachers are being driven out of the classroom by a toxic combination of high workloads and low morale. Urgent action is required to stop our education system from sliding backwards, and this requires a collective effort across our political spectrum.

From the Early Years right through to adult learning, no one can doubt that there were major points of departure between the two major parties at this election. Both sides assumed they had all the answers, and even more importantly, that the other side had none. In this zero-sum game, our politicians expended far more energy battling each other than they did on tackling the issues. When each party is competing to ‘win’ on policies like education, it is often our children who lose out most.

In today’s febrile climate it can be difficult to talk the language of compromise and pragmatism. If you have spent an entire campaign delegitimising the other side, questioning their motives and slinging as much mud as possible, it is far harder to come together afterwards and co-operate on matters of national significance. This makes it very challenging to build any kind of consensus on policy and impedes the kind of long-term strategy our education system badly needs.

The truth is that parties from across the political spectrum recognise that there are major divides in our country, and we all have a stake in helping to even the odds for children who aren’t getting a fair chance. If we take the party labels out of the situation for a second, aren’t we all basically agreed that we want better outcomes for our children? We may doubt the sincerity of those on the other side, but if we are prepared to trust and respect those with whom we disagree, then the debate becomes how, rather than if, we strive towards greater fairness in education.

Our children aren’t guinea pigs for the ideas of people seeking election. We must ensure that the decisions shaping their lives are based on our best knowledge of what is most effective, and that new policies are much more rigorously tested before mass adoption.

As the dust begins to settle, we have to be prepared to put aside our differences in the interests of the least advantaged children. Boris Johnson owes his victory to a significant number of Labour ‘Leave’ seats in the North. Whether he actually delivers for the most disadvantaged communities in this region may well determine if he can keep them.

Fiona Spellman is CEO of Leeds-based education charity SHINE.