Election campaigns are in full swing, battle buses have left their stations and battle lines have been drawn however there is a big opportunity being missed by all the main parties. Education has been shown to be an election winning issue, who can forget Tony Blair 20 years ago with his ‘education, education, education’ pledge, but the current political leaders are missing a major education based vote winning opportunity.
The education system is in need of a major lift, schools across the country are facing funding cuts and per pupil spending has never been lower but no political party is making the right argument. Labour have proposed a big spend on free school meals, Conservatives appear to be offering continuation and the Lib Dems have not spoken to any extent on education. This major vote winning topic is being overlooked and it is a huge political opportunity being missed.
As proven in 1997 if you get the messaging right on education it can be a big stepping stone towards electoral success. Millions of people have children in this country; everyone has been to school and recognises its importance, education affects almost everyone and the electorate places education as a high priority. The Conservatives knew this in 2015 and promised to ring fence school spending but with the system and profession in the doldrums the 2017 general election is a major opportunity to make a big, bold, positive proposal on education and it could propel a party in to power.
Where is education now?
There is a looming crisis facing the education sector. The biggest issue is funding, as the government’s new fair funding formula is in reality a financial cut totalling £3billion. This is forcing head teachers and school governors in to difficult decisions over recruitment. Schools are being forced to let go, or not hire new, teachers and teaching assistants while books, resources and equipment cannot be bought or renewed. Just last week the National Union of Head Teachers proposed allowing schools to reduce the school week to four and a half days in a money saving measure.
On top of working to a smaller budget schools are also facing pupil numbers growing each year while teacher recruitment stalls forcing class sizes to bulge, unqualified teachers to be used or teachers teaching subjects they are untrained in. Teachers are not staying in the profession due to stress and long working hours while there are fewer teachers being trained. Pay increases have been frozen at 1% for more than 5 years with no end in sight, while performance related pay is being introduced in places meaning growing numbers of teachers are being denied pay increases.
Mental health support in schools is also being cut back in order to meet tighter budget requirements. The growing class sizes also means less individual support for children and makes it much more difficult for children to concentrate and make progress required. Growing numbers of children are becoming stressed and panicked over SATs at years 2 and 6, no doubt influenced by teachers facing higher expectation levels for pass rates from government and Ofsted. This is before mentioning the hundreds of millions being spent to unnecessarily re-introduce grammar schools.
The system is facing extreme pressure and strain, this election campaign like in 1997 is a chance for a political party to take this upon their shoulders and make a major impact.
The Political Opportunity
Without mentioning the positive impact within education of simply recognition from a politician or party of a system at breaking point, the impact is potentially huge politically also. Education was in a similar position before the election in 1997 when Tony Blair put a spotlight on the issue and played on an innate desire within the electorate to give their children a proper, well-funded education system. The impact 20 years ago was huge and it could be similarly ground breaking in 2017.
So far Labour has proposed extending the free school meals programme; unfortunately this is the wrong use of funds at a time when the profession is facing so many challenges and cuts. What Labour, or any political party, should be proposing is a big investment in schools, building new and improving old, while teachers should be invested in and supported through a cutting of their workload and a long overdue pay rise. The money being pumped in to grammar schools could be used to fund 100’s of new classrooms ensuring class sizes never go above 30.
This kind of offer, emphasised by the current education climate, would be well received by an electorate that knows the value of education and wants to give their children the best opportunities possible. This style of messaging and this offer could be enough to push a political party over the line on June 8th, maybe not in the emphatic way Tony Blair’s Labour party did in 1997 but learning the lessons from that success and repackaging it for a new generation.