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Stephen Eastwood
December 2016.
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How exactly have the Conservatives changed the education system, and is it working?
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It depends on whether we’re looking at the coalition government, or post-2015. If you look at what’s happened since 2010, then you can probably see the influence of the Lib Dems – the other party in the coalition – at play there.

I’m not entirely clear where every single policy item came from during that time, but we had an era that was perhaps the most enlightened since the 80s in terms of policy enactions – yet that may have been because of the Lib Dems rather than the Conservatives.

"It’s quite an imaginative combination of policies, and I was both surprised and pleased to see them enacted – and that's quite unusual with education policies for me!"

For instance, a very sensible policy was the introduction of the pupil premium, where extra money was given to schools in proportion to the number of children they have from disadvantaged backgrounds. It’s in the order of an extra £1,500 per pupil who has one of several disadvantages, but the main one is defined as a family living in poverty. These children often have greater priorities elsewhere or different learning needs, so they may face challenges that other pupils won’t.

There’s a threshold involved, so those who fall just above the level defined as being in poverty don’t get it, which may be unfair. But the main thing is the law says schools must use it to improve the attainment of those children – they can’t just use it to build a new sports hall, for instance – and they have to show how they’ve targeted those children to reduce the poverty attainment gap in their schools. And many schools don’t really know how to do that. So the government also set up the Educational Endowment Foundation (EEF) – a kind of quasi-hands-off government body which runs as a charity, funding randomised trials to find out exactly what does and doesn’t work.

More and more schools are now looking to EEF evidence in order to decide what interventions they can put into place, and these range from whole-school programs to targeted programs for individuals, such as a teacher taking a child out of lessons and giving them targeted teaching, so they can catch up with rest of class. So they’re effectively giving schools money and an a la carte menu of options to decide what to spend the money on in order to overcome these problems. It’s quite an imaginative combination of policies, and I was both surprised and pleased to see them enacted – quite unusual with education policies for me!

So there’s this underlying scheme that’s trying to reduce the extent to which people’s backgrounds matter to what they achieve in education. But on the other hand, at the same time, the same government is trying to divide that system by allowing more and more types of state schools.

"There are these two contrary trends – imaginative ways of making the system better for everybody, and then at the same time trying to partition off schools intended for a minority."

They’re in favour of dividing schools into different types – academies, free schools, faith schools (which I see as pointless, and dangerous to community cohesion) – and promoting selection, along with the building of new Grammar schools.

I’m not really sure what the fragmentation of the state-funded system is for. The primary concern should be that it should not matter where you live or what your family circumstances are to the quality of education you receive. So there are these two contrary trends – imaginative ways of making the system better for everybody, and then at the same time trying to partition off schools intended for a minority.

One other very brave thing the government has done is in reorganising the body that oversees examination standards. They tried it to make it more transparent to the public how difficult it is to assess exams, through an organisation called Ofqual, which releases information about re-gradings and errors in examinations and so on.

We all know these things exist, but revealing that to the public is very brave. And, as a result, maybe employers and universities might begin to put slightly less reliance only on qualifications when assessing people in future.