Why are we not having the education debate?

29 Apr

Someone recently asked me why education hasn’t had more airtime during the election.  That is not to say that broadcasters haven’t given it focus but simply a question why it hasn’t been center stage of the election in the way maybe it would have been expected to be.

At the start of the year I blogged my 4 main hopes for education in Wales.  One of those hopes was that we wouldn’t see education used as a bat to hit the Welsh Government.  It is perfectly right that opposition parties scrutinise the record of delivery, and criticise where appropriate, but I wanted it to be an election of ideas.  Having reviewed the manifestos I think it is fair to say that all parties have brought ideas to the table, but sadly, for a few different reasons we haven’t quite had that debate.  So what are the reasons education has, thus far, been sidelined.

Steel

Unquestionably the steel crisis has dominated news agendas in Wales over recent weeks.  The future of the Port Talbot Tata plant in particular, as well as the impact on other direct and indirect jobs across Wales, has been the primary focus of the political narrative.  This was evidenced by the fact the whole economy section of the ITV leaders debate  was basically a Q&A on the future of steel.  For the early part of this short-election campaign steel has been the only game in town and as such education has taken a back seat.

Policy consensus

On some of the real meaty areas of education delivery we are in a little bit of limbo.  On curriculum reform, on qualifications and to an extent on continued professional development, the direct of travel has been set and there is a lot of consensus around where we should be going.  Added to which pioneer schools are in the process of shaping that outlook, parties have been understandably reluctant to preempt the decision making process.  There isn’t a whole lot of debate to be had around these issues that hasn’t already taken place prior to the election period.

Given that policy consensus there was never going to be any major changes on the big picture areas and so creating differences in approach would need to be more subtle.  There are some signature policies that have been put forward by the parties but not on radical change.

Building Bridges

I think if Leighton Andrews had still been in post we would have seen a far more fiery education debate going into this election.  I dare say that even if all was quiet on the political front the wider teaching profession would have been far more vocal and combative in its review of the role of the Welsh Government.  I also think it is a little hard to believe we would have reached quite a mutually supportive position on those policy issues outlined above.  The hostile relationships and aggravation that existed during the early years of the 4th Assembly would have provided a more direct platform for opposition parties to launch their education attacks.

Huw Lewis deserves a lot of credit for rebuilding relationships after he took over the post.  There is still a lot of disagreement on policy.  National testing is a prime example of where teachers remain critical of the Welsh Government.  However, the tone of those discussions are far more conciliatory.  There is an environment now where the workforce can be constructively critical of the Welsh Government while the Welsh Government are more constructive and respectful when implementing policy.  This bridge building work has taken a lot of the potential heat out of the debate and allowed a space to breath for the Welsh Government in entering the election period.

The Figureheads

Perhaps one of the big issues is that we haven’t had the big names clashing.  Neither UKIP or the Green party education spokesperson has any real recognition value.  With Huw Lewis standing down as an Assembly Member there’s a sense that he isn’t really central to this election.  That leaves Simon Thomas and Angela Burns who are themselves somewhat sidelined by the fact that they are engaged in a head to head fight for the Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire constituency, and Aled Roberts who is fighting for every last vote in the North Wales Regional List.  These are spokespeople without the luxury and freedom of safe seats.  That will have demands on their ability to take time off from individual campaigns top give wider focus to a policy area.  While it has happened it has not happened quite as prominently as would have been the case if their own elections were not so tight.

That is not to criticise the individuals, and in fairness they have all come together for education debates at hustings for NUT Cymru and for the BBC, but it has taken the edge of the debate as it could have been.

Do the parties want that focus?

I think it is fair to say that Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Lib Dems do want an education focus.  Plaid have done a lot of work on their manifesto and their Teachers Premium policy is potentially an attractive vote winner with the profession.  Equally the Welsh Lib Dems have gone into the election with cutting class sizes as a key pledge and championing their pupil premium negotiations as a way of showing their effectiveness at the last Assembly.  That said I’m not sure the enthusiasm extends to the other parties.

Welsh Labour will argue that they have a positive message on education.  They do of course have a spending pledge central to their major policies going into this campaign.  Looking back on their record I think there are some real successes they can point to.  That said after such a long period of being in government there is also a lot of areas that opposition parties can exploit.  For any party of government riding out the election without a significant policy debate is a far more comfortable prospect than daily scrutiny.  I’m not accusing Labour of actively avoiding those engagements.  Indeed Huw Lewis kindly took part in national NUT hustings and we have had Labour candidates participate in several others across Wales.  However, it is no doubt electorally advantageous for them not to seek them out.

For some time the Welsh Conservatives have had a major focus on health which somewhat marginalises their focus on education.  As well as this the acadamies policy in England has left them vulnerable.  Just as the junior doctor strike has put them a little on the back foot in discussing the NHS, the fallout emanating from a series of Tory MPs questioning the effectiveness and rationale behind the acadamies roll-out leaves them open to criticisms here.  While the party in Wales have ruled out acadamies, some of their policies around how schools would be funded and how they are democratically accountable have been jumped on by rivals as an acadamies by another name approach.  You get the sense that these factors have partly lead to fewer engagements on education from the party.

UKIP, as I have said, proposed some interesting ideas on education.  However, the one that stood out has been a disaster for them.  Pretty much the only education debate that has cut through has been UKIPs commitment to grammar schools.  It is an unpopular and ill-thought through standpoint and you sense that being constantly on the defensive has not been a comfortable position for the party.  It is no wonder this is therefore an area that they have perhaps chosen to only discuss when prompted.

The real shame about the fact we have so far not had this discussion is that there is a real debate to be had.  There’s a lot of consensus but also a lot of differences between the parties.  There is a real choice for the electorate in terms of what they want the future of education in Wales to look like.  Where there have been clashes on education in the leaders debate it has been punchy and challenging.  What’s more the likes of Huw Lewis, Simon Thomas, Aled Roberts and Angela Burns are all up there some of the best in their parties and really bring out the best in Welsh political discussion.

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