After 13 years of Conservative government, the country’s public services are in less than fine fettle. There is an exception. Under the Conservatives, England’s schools have improved. England is now the best in the West when it comes to reading at primary-school age, according to one ranking. When it comes to maths, English students of the same age have improved compared with their European peers (even if they lag Asian ones). Scotland, whose progressive education system is loathed by Tories, has dribbled down the table. Historically, England was a laggard; now it’s ahead.
Smaller targets have been met, too. More students study sciences and maths, as the Tories wanted. Maths has become the most popular subject at A-level, the exams English students write at 18. Watered-down GES, the exams children write at 16, have been replaced by more rigorous versions. In 2010, 68 percent of schools were rated good or outstanding by inspectors. Now the figure is 88 percent. In a stint of government in which achievements are few, schools stand out. What went right?
For starters, the Conservatives had a plan. Before winning the 2010 general election, they had spent five years in opposition mulling school reforms, diagnosing the problems the system faced. The original sin, according to Nick Gibb, the then-shadow and incumbent schools minister, was progressive education, which focused too much on teaching children how to think rather than teaching them what they should know. Then they worked out how they wanted to fix it. Curriculums would be overhauled. Reading, writing and maths would trump other topics. Policies such as ‘phonics’, which teaches children to read sounds rather than whole words, were expanded; schools would be tested on how well they taught it.
When opposition to the proposals emerged, ministers did not wilt. Teachers and their unions loathed them. Michael Gove, the secretary of state, became unpopular. He welcomed the hatred and nicknamed opponents “the blob”, which has become a catch-all term to describe any official or institution that opposes Conservative policy.
Schools also avoided another common problem in the British government: ever-changing ministers. Once a minister learns a brief, he or she tends to be moved on to another, starting from total ignorance. Gibb has been in situ for ten of its 13 years in power. By contrast, the Conservatives have had 15 housing ministers in the same period. It is no coincidence that housing policy has been chaotic in that time.
When it comes to standards in schools, the Conservatives decided what they wanted to do and how they wanted to do it, and then stuck with it. It is a rare example of consistency. The reason why Britain has been poorly governed for 13 years is that the government has reversed course on fundamental questions so often. From 2010 to 2016, the Tories offered a vision of a small-state country inside the EU. After 2016, the party offered a flabby big-state vision with Britain out of the EU. In schools, however, the Conservatives have stuck to a course set decades ago.