In all the sound and fury that this election campaign has produced so far, it is astonishing and rather sinister how little has been said about our creaking state education system. Labour will have something to say today about pre-school education, and there is a lively argument under way about tuition fees for university students, but the political leaders have so far avoided wading into questions affecting the future of more than eight million children now in state primary or secondary schools.
This is a political choice. The Conservatives prefer to fight a campaign on the economy; Labour’s strongest card is the NHS. Nobody would deny the importance of the health of the population and the health of the economy, but it could be said that education trumps them both. There is ample evidence that people who have been let down by the school system are more likely to suffer ill health later in life than those who have enjoyed a good education. And while the Government can do a certain amount in the immediate future to stimulate the economy or improve public finances, it is blindingly obvious that the nation’s long-term economic health depends on our schools turning out a generation that is literate, numerate, and able to think creatively.
In the past 15 years, successive governments have done a decent job of addressing one problem that was previously allowed to fester. In the 1980s and 1990s, it was thought acceptable for children to be taught in old buildings that were falling apart or in temporary classrooms. The Labour government began a huge programme, which the Conservative-led Coalition has continued, of investing in new buildings, thus ensuring that the physical environment in which children were expected to learn has markedly improved. But raising the standards of the teaching that takes place in those new buildings is a more complicated problem.
It is, for instance, immensely important that the morale of state school teachers is protected, but there are disturbing signs that the profession is not as rewarding as it should be; the worst problems, unsurprisingly, are concentrated in the failing schools, which are almost invariably in the areas with the greatest social needs. One survey, admittedly now several years old, found that the 25 per cent of schools with the poorest results lost a fifth of their teaching staff each year. Another problem, which is undoubtedly one of the causes of high turnover, is that teachers are not the respected figures in the community that they once were. The spread of social media has dramatised this problem, as is demonstrated by our report today about online abuse directed at teachers.
One school of thought implies that state school teachers have brought these problems on themselves through industrial militancy and the adoption of strange and ineffectual theories about how to teach, and that they would inspire more respect if they adopted the disciplined, competitive ethos of the private schools. But this overlooks the inbuilt advantages that private schools enjoy.
These issues are not easily resolved. There are not many ways to improve teaching standards without adding to the bill – not with the one-off cost of a new school building, but with higher annual costs in salaries and equipment. That is not an easy subject for politicians to argue over when there is so much emphasis on getting public spending under control, but on it hinges the future well-being of the nation.Reuse content