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Expert Reaction: What might we expect for education in the general election campaign 2017?

Posted on 3 May 2017

Will the general election campaign see a new direction for education or will it be more of the same? Dr Paul Wakeling from the University of York’s Department of Education and Dr Chris Renwick from the Department of History, give their views:


There are pressing matters for education

Dr Wakeling said: “Education doesn’t seem likely to feature strongly in this surprise election, but there are some clear differences among the parties. Since education is a devolved issue, expect little mention of it from the SNP or Plaid Cymru. 

“In England, Theresa May has personally pushed a policy of reintroducing grammar schools, a move also favoured by UKIP. However this is likely to face strong opposition from within education. It may play well with core Conservative supporters, but it is not clear how popular the proposal, like previous re-arrangements of institutional form, will be with floating voters. 

£3 billion for schools

“Labour is leading with promises on school funding, hoping to make political capital from some recent government difficulties with school budget cuts. Attention here will focus on the affordability of a promised £3 billion for schools. 

“The Liberal Democrats, who have cast themselves as the ‘party of education’ in recent elections, are focused on Brexit and attracting the Remain vote this time around. They are likely to avoid much discussion of higher education in particular, having lost political capital through support of trebling University tuition fees in coalition. Only the Green Party are promising to scrap tuition fees. 

“Further education has suffered cuts and neglect across successive cuts and is dire need of attention. There is also a looming crisis in teacher recruitment and retention. There are pressing matters for education which seem unlikely to feature in the 2017 election campaign.”


Theresa May’s flagship policy is a new generation of grammar schools

Dr Renwick said: “Brexit provides a remarkable context for the 2017 general election, with the prospect of political and economic upheaval not seen since the Second World War. 

"The decade after 1945 saw the emergence of new secondary education system, based on an increased leaving age of 15 and ambitions to increase it to 16 as soon as possible. Based on what we’ve heard so far, however, Brexit-era education policy will feature precious little new. 

“Theresa May’s flagship policy is a new generation of grammar schools – institutions that were central to education after 1945 but were largely abandoned by the 1980s. This policy has appealed to sections of the Conservative Party for some time and the Prime Minister seems to think it will address concerns about declining rates of social mobility and living standards among “just about managing” families who voted leave in June 2016. There is next to no evidence that grammar schools achieve either of those aims, particularly when it comes to helping bright working class children. 

Technical education

“An important reason Margaret Thatcher, Education Secretary during the early 1970s, closed more grammar schools than any other politician was disillusionment among the vast majority of parents – particularly middle-class parents – whose children failed the 11plus. 

“Public schools were once a safety valve for some of those frustrations. Yet with fees at historic highs – an average of £15,000 a year for a sixth form place – there are few reasons to think that May’s policy won’t see a return of resentment at public resources being focused on the few rather than then many.  

“Brexit is also provides a new context, and possibly opportunity, for one of the longest-running concerns in British education. Both the Conservatives and Labour are likely to promise something along the lines of a new generation of apprenticeships. This will be the latest instalment of a century-old debate about what is often called “technical education." 

Changing direction

"Throughout the late twentieth century successive governments responded to Britain’s relative failings in science, technology, and engineering by shifting focus from industry and manufacturing, where the country was often uncompetitive, to services. An exit from the single market, which Britain has always been an enthusiast for, poses serious problems for this strategy. 

“Will Brexit inspire the next government to change tack, especially if they plan to reduce immigration significantly? A new educational policy will be required: one that matches its “industrial policy”, a phrase that has been resurrected recently after 20 years in the political wilderness.

“If that happens, it will involve changing the direction travelled by successive governments for the past half century."

Further information:

Dr Paul Wakeling was quoted in The Guardian's feature on what politicians should be promising for education during the election campaign 2017.

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