Election focus: Missing the point – education in the #GE2017 manifestos

Stephen Ball, author of the best-selling The education debate (third edition out in August) gives a passionate take on how the party manifestos are missing what should be at the heart of education policy.

Stephen J Ball

“What is most striking when reading the party manifestos for the General Election and listening to the speeches and debates is the absence of education.

There is quite a lot of writing and talking about money – funding – and about structures – grammar schools or a National Education Service – but very little about what its purpose is, about teaching and learning, about what is means to be educated.

To some extent those things are taken for granted, pre-given, closed to debate. Education is about and for the economy. Its about investing “in people to develop their skills and capabilities” (Labour Party) – investing, a key trope of the neoliberal sensibility, sits oddly in the Labour Manifesto.

Over and against that, in a perverse rhetorical reverse,for the Conservatives education is about meritocracy – although clearly no one Labour or Conservative has read Michael Young’s book! – and it’s about tackling “enduring injustices” and “breaking down longstanding divisions” (Conservatives).

How do we go about breaking down these divisions?

Well, obviously we re-install new divisions recycled from injustices of the past – Grammar schools and ‘a knowledge-rich curriculum’ and knowing ‘the times tables off by heart”. And this is because “if you are a white, working class boy, you are less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university” – who writes this stuff? Have they never read the statistics relating to Roma and Traveller and looked-after children?

If you want to read something that’s actually about education you have to turn to the Liberal Democrats. For them it “fosters understanding and tolerance, and it empowers children and communities”, although it has “a dual role” in also “giving young people the knowledge and skills they need to be part of a productive, competitive economy” – well being and emergency life-saving skills and arts subjects also get a mention by the Lib Dems alongside entrepreneurship.

At least there is a glimpse here of someone thinking that education might be about something else than preparing for the world of work, something that is about our social relations, our role as citizens, about development critical capacities.

“Education might be about something else than preparing for the world of work, something that is about our social relations, our role as citizens, about development critical capacities.”

Despite all of that, you cannot write about education policy in a manifesto without rehearsing the key tenets of the global education reform consensus.

When it comes down to it education policy is about “driving up school standards” (Lib-Dems p. 28) and “we will drive up standards” (Labour p. 37) and ensure improvements in “schools’ accountability at key stage 3” and have “75 per cent of pupils to have been entered for the EBacc combination of GCSEs by the end of the next parliament” (Conservatives p. 51). And to achieve all of that we need, of course, “strong leadership” (Labour).

“It’s not about education, it’s ‘the economy stupid’.”

The Lib-Dems remind us, that “England’s young people are some of the unhappiest and most anxious in the world”. I wonder why, and I wonder why that does not seem to bother politicians or parents?

Well that’s because when it comes down to it, what really counts, what is really important is not the educational experience itself, not the sort of people we have become, not how we relate to others, not our mental health, but how well we do in tests and exams. That’s what gets our school to the top of the league table, that’s what get praised by the Inspectors, that’s what gets our teacher a rise in their performance related pay, that’s what gets us into a university with a high rate of return in terms of graduate pay. That’s what we are investing in. It’s not about education, it’s “the economy, stupid”.

“It’s not about education, it’s “the economy, stupid (James Carville for Bill Clinton 1992).”

Is a general election an opportunity to debate and consider the sorts of young people our education system is producing and thus what sort of society we might be living in the future? Forget it, “its all about money kid, everything else is just conversation” (Gordon Gekko).

You can pre-order The education debate by Stephen J. Ball  here for just £11.19.

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