For the first time in a decade both politicians and civil servants have a real opportunity to think radically about how to improve public policy. Back in 2010, when I was working in the Department for Education, policy development was constrained by three factors. First, the lack of a single party majority in Parliament meant that primary legislation was generally off the table. Second, policies had to be agreed by the two governing parties and so often meant that officials were working tirelessly to achieve a sub-optimal middle ground. And finally, the political appetite for risk was low as, with one eye on the next general election and a desire to avoid another coalition, every seat mattered. Education was arguably an outlier in this – seeing significant changes to school accountability, qualification reforms and a brand-new curriculum under the helm of Michael Gove.
Now, with a healthy majority in Parliament, a new wave of Conservative voters in parts of the North that have typically been red, and an opposition party in a state of transition, politicians can afford to be more radical across all areas of public policy.
But, on the face of it, there appears to be little appetite for a public services revolution. While the other parties proposed major changes to long-standing features of the education system, such as abolishing Ofsted and the testing of primary school pupils, the Conservatives focused on more subtle and mostly uncontroversial changes including “levelling up” funding, increasing teacher pay and expanding the free schools programme.
For the education sector at least, a lack of radical reform might be welcome. But the reality is that there are still lots of issues that need fixing. Most notably, the gap in attainment between disadvantaged pupils and the rest is over 18 months by the age of 16 – and that gap is wider still in parts of the country including in the North.
Our research has found that Conservative education plans are unlikely to address this gap, which has shown no real improvement in recent years. Indeed, government plans to “level up” funding mean that schools in disadvantaged areas will benefit the least from additional funding. Given that a number of those disadvantaged schools are in constituencies that have recently turned from red to blue, they may well find themselves, quite literally, short-changed.