Do You Really Believe Politicians Can Improve Schools? of Course You Don't

By Parris, Matthew | The Spectator, October 29, 2005 | Go to article overview

Do You Really Believe Politicians Can Improve Schools? of Course You Don't


Parris, Matthew, The Spectator


How important is the weather to you? Asked to choose between three responses, 'important', 'fairly important' and 'of no importance', I reckon most people would tick the first or second box. Very few would consider the weather of no importance.

A second inquiry, then: since 1997, has Britain's weather been (a) better (b) the same or (c) worse? Asked to choose between these responses, I reckon my countrymen would split three ways, with rather more than a third noting no change at all, and the rest dividing equally between those who think the weather has got rather better, and those who think it is somewhat worse.

Which is instructive, because if for the word 'weather' you substitute the word 'education', you will get almost exactly the same sets of results. Polling evidence suggests that almost everyone in Britain thinks education is a very important or at least fairly important matter; and if a poll in the Guardian earlier this week is to be believed, 35 per cent of us think schools have got neither better nor worse since Labour came to power, 30 per cent think they have got worse, 29 per cent think they have improved, and 6 per cent don't know. And that despite a huge campaign of public spending and a swarm of initiatives which, though much of the money and effort seems to have disappeared into the ether, have certainly purchased widespread if modest improvements to class sizes and the physical condition of schools.

To most of my countrymen, I suspect that education is rather like the weather. They know it matters but they doubt politicians can do much about it.

Of course, had Tony Blair stood on the steps of Downing Street eight years ago and declared that his priorities were 'weather, weather, weather' we should have sniggered.

By the same token, had he remarked that education is something which just happens, and the government can affect it only at the margins, we should have jeered. Ever since King Canute, polite opinion has inclined to the view that politicians are powerless in the face of nature. Ever since the great educational reforms of the 19th century, polite opinion has averred that prime ministers can create good schools. It is simply not done to deny the potency of politicians to 'deliver' better education.

But if my hunch is right, polite opinion on education has stayed where it was, while real, underlying opinion has moved. When it comes to schools, people no longer expect much of politicians.

Education belongs to that strange group of supposed priorities in politics which we might dub 'mirage' issues. Transport is another, and so to some degree is crime. On all the indicators, they look like solid questions to which the public demand answers from their politicians, but when party leaders march up and 'address' the issue, it just doesn't seem to register with the voters: no reward accrues.

Ask the public the sorts of questions that pollsters are given to asking about these issues, and the responses will paint for you a picture of great public concern, and the expectation of action from government. But offer them a debate on television between two rival politicians and their blueprints for schools, and voters will traipse off into the kitchen to make a cup of tea. The last time a British government did anything in this field which really made a difference -- the abolition of the grammar schools three quarters of the way through the 20th century -- the results were perceived as a disappointment. …

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