“Upon the education of the people of this country the fate of this country depends.”
– Benjamin Disraeli
I find it rather sad knowing that this is my last Backbench article in the capacity of Education Secretary. It’s a fascinating, ever-changing area to research, discuss and write about – and more importantly it’s an area of policy that truly affects each area of our society. Furthermore, this current government has perhaps been one of the most transformative of education and will certainly leave behind, much like Blair and even at a stretch Attlee, a distinctive educational legacy. But, are we leaving behind a legacy that will give the generation below us a chance to achieve and question their surroundings? Somehow, I think not - and that genuinely saddens me- as it may not only have some horrendous long-term consequences but also create a ‘lost generation’ condemned to receive a poorly thought-out education system that could ruin lives.
I myself must commend the education I received during my secondary school years – although I crawled rather sluggishly through primary school, and failed to get into any sort of grammar school, yet I believe the education I received at my comprehensive was nothing short of excellent. I don’t wish to seem like the angry socialist whom will constantly bang on about my comprehensive education, but I certainly doubt any education I received from any other institution would have topped the one I received at my school. The teachers were passionate, engaging, friendly and above all interesting, and I believe the educational policy of the Labour government at the time helped to facilitate that. Certainly the Blair years weren’t exactly ground breaking – but his mantra of “education, education, education” certainly could be seen. However, all that was built up then, in my view, is being steadily dismantled by the current government.
Consider firstly, what’s happening to teachers. It’s a constant theme in my articles, but I truly believe that a good education requires an excellent teacher. Yet the teachers need to trust the government – certainly Blair was popular amongst some of my teachers, yet Michael Gove incites such hatred from them to a level that you almost feel sorry for the man. If you read myBackbench article where my old teachers, including my headmaster, talked about Gove it was almost universal condemnation on various aspects of his educational policy. And it’s certainly justified – he sets performance based pay-scales that can trap teachers in inner city schools within a vicious cycle of poor results and poor pay. Morale is at an all-time low, and Gove has incited numerous protests from the National Union of Teachers and a vote of no confidence from the head teachers union. Certainly one legacy this government will leave behind is that they didn’t make any attempt to work with teachers – rather they attempted to dismiss them as angry Marxists, or instead simply fill schools full of troops in some hare-brained scheme that only requires one yearof training! I will refrain from talking too much about this issue, as I’ve said my piece in previous articles – but without a doubt this current government is severely affecting the way teaching operates and how teachers are seeing their jobs, in a devastatingly negative way.
A second issue, and one that I haven’t touched upon before is tuition fees. Perhaps the single burning education issue the moment Cameron walked into Number 10 was the upping of tuition fees to £9,000 a year. Certainly at the time I was shocked – the amount of debt I’m currently putting myself in is something not worth thinking about it, I can only hope it pays off in the long run. But just think of how it incited students – images of riots and occupations fill my mind when I recall the student protests. Rightly they felt Nick Clegg had stabbed them in the back, especially after the Liberal Democrats were able to count on huge student support in the 2010 election after he pledged not to raise tuition fee. I raised the question of tuition fees to Ed Miliband during the 2012 party conference, and I got the reply that Labour would lower the tuition fees to £3,000 a year in 2015. I knew that scrapping tuition fees all together was simply unrealistic – but at least I am assured that Labour is still to an extent trying to lessen the burden on students. The current government however? They are one that you cannot take as being popular with students and the Liberal Democrats have consigned themselves to electoral oblivion, especially as they were passionately backed by students who were then so swiftly shot down. And it’s very much a matter that affects my generation – since myself and many others going to university are the ones being hit by this hike, and I’ll be paying it off for a large portion of my working life. Another example of what legacy this government is leaving behind, one that is certainly scarring.
But indeed as well as tuition fees, the government is affecting the overall reputation of higher education. Certainly, Britain overall is known internationally for its excellent education. Our universities were shining examples of how excellent our educational institutions are, or rather were. International students are turning away from our universities thanks to overly restrictive measures, a sad fact considering our universities attracted students like Mahatma Ghandi and Bill Clinton. Moreover, even our overall reputation is slipping – with the exception of the ‘golden triangle’ of Oxbridge and the London universities. Universities steeped in history and academic success such as Edinburgh, Leeds and Sheffield are slowly but steadily dropping. Leeds for instance has been removed from the Top 100 in the QS World Rankings, as has Sheffield. Of course league tables aren’t everything – but the fact our universities are slipping down whilst other countries such as Australia and Finland see a surge in the league tables reflects that the government needs to urgently do something. Yet they aren’t- they are blocking off foreign talent and putting students in shackling amounts of debt.
But what about free schools? These are a common theme and one of Michael Gove’s flagship policies. They promised schooling led by the teacher and the parent, a more democratic model with self-set curriculums. What could go wrong? Well, it seems that the issue of religion rears its ugly head in free schools. Although I went to a faith school I received a very fair and balanced education, yet these faith-based free schools shock me. In one of my previous articles I referred to St. Michaels Catholic Free School, which discouraged gays from applying – but another school has even more questionable practices. The Al-Madinah School in Derby has been accused of segregation amongst female and male students and it forces female teachers to wear Islamic dress. That’s not greater democracy in local schooling, that’s not education, that’s not a legacy that I want to see. It’s simply disastrous and I sincerely hope that this free school policy is one of Michael Gove’s many U-Turns before the generation below us is raised in such hateful educational surroundings.
To conclude, as I depart from my position in this Cabinet I leave painting a rather grim picture of our current education system. Yet, I like to use the facts. During my term as Education Secretary I tried to research my articles to the best of my ability and ensured I got the views of many teachers, indeed ones that taught me and ones outside of my school. I always painted a rather grey and depressing picture of our education system. And it saddens me. I’d love to say that this current government is changing our education system for the better, and that we’ll see a kind of education revolution that will benefit all. However, all that I’m seeing is a farce of an education system. Teachers and the Department of Education are forever at odds – leading to consistent strikes and woefully low morale – students are shackled with debt and we see a rise in private, for-profit education rather than public education for all. I wish the next person who picks up the torch and takes up the role of Backbench Education Secretary that they really scrutinize the educational policy of our government. We, the students, are a voice that is consistently ignored – we get the views of academics and politicians constantly, but never students. It needs to be heard and this is a perfect platform to do so – I know I was able to add my bit and help, if only a little, better inform people about the History curriculum changes, and I sincerely wish the next education secretary the best of luck and hope they will ensure their voice is heard in the ever-changing yet unrepresentative world of education policy.
I leave on a quote by John Green on why public education, an area that we as a country could be proud of thanks to Attlee’s educational legacy, is important:
“Let me explain something. Public education does not exist for the benefit of students or for the benefit of their parents. It exists for the benefit of the social order. We have discovered as a species that it is useful to have an educated population. You do not need to be a student or have a child who is a student to benefit from public education. Every second of every day of your life, you benefit from public education. So let me explain for why I like to pay taxes for schools, even though I don’t personally have a kid in school: It’s because I don’t like living in a country with a bunch of stupid people.”
Backbench Minister for Education