British elections primarily interest me from a watching-the-train-continue-to-crash perspective, because I don’t think the UK has much to teach the rest of the world on how to run a social democracy well. The electoral system is completely broken; their Tories are the very picture-perfect image of the born-to-rule upper class who don’t care, their Labour party is weak and achieved its only long run in modern politics by electing a vampire; their only “functioning” industry is banking, and by extension the only economic plan either party has is to keep bankers rich and use the taxes to buy off everyone else; and their media are rotten. However, there are two aspects of British elections that interest me from a policy perspective: what they are going to do about the NHS, and what they are going to do about their terrible education system.
Before the election I was going to write about both of these, but got lazy. My first post was intended to be about the perils for Labour of “weaponising” the NHS (which I think they obviously have done), but the election outcome kind of made my point for me on that regard. However my second post was going to be about Labour’s education policy, which seemed to be the most sensible thing anyone had presented in the entire election period and thus, of course, the only thing that got no coverage. Sadly, that election policy is now going to be dead for at least five years, which leaves the Tories free to pursue their ideologically-driven and intellectually bankrupt, evidence-free Free Schools Policy.
The Labour education policy included two interesting and positive moves, and one very realistic and sensible principle. The first, and in my opinion biggest, move was a plan to make mathematics education compulsory to 18 years. As someone with a strong bias towards maths education, and someone who thinks that mathematics ability is more about education than talent, this plan really appealed to me as a way to turn around Britain’s woeful mathematics performance. The policy received support from an Oxford mathematics professor, du Simonyi, who is kind of famous, and also from the head of Britain’s National Numeracy charity, who said
We really need to challenge negative attitudes that assume that maths is a ‘can do’ or ‘can’t do’ subject. It is not. Everyone can – with effort and persistence – learn the maths they need for everyday life and work
Which is something I very strongly agree with, but something which apparently many British children are struggling to realize, with the result that Britain consistently underperforms its OECD peers in mathematics. It’s really sad to me that the country that did more than any other to advance statistics and mathematics has decided to abandon the census, and basically given away all its mathematical advantages to the USA and Europe, and Hunt’s policy seems like it would have been a first step to undoing this problem. I guess it’s just as well 16 year olds can’t vote though, because that policy alone would be enough to have the entire age cohort rushing to vote Tory …
The second policy, perhaps much less comprehensible outside of the UK, was a plan to abolish GCSEs and introduce a 10-year reform of education. This would break the long-standing division of British schools into technical and academic grades, recognizing that education in the 21st century isn’t just about getting a job and that a formal education until 19 is valuable to everyone in the modern world, not just those planning on going on to further education. This kind of reform finally breaks down an old-fashioned idea derived from Britain’s class structure, and essential to getting rid of that structure. Of course it’s not enough, but it’s a start. Furthermore, Tristram Hunt, the education spokesperson, made clear that they would not set forth on these reforms straight away, but would aim to enact them over two parliaments, giving teachers a break from the constant annoying reorganizations they are forced through every five years and building a coherent, long-term strategy for the system. This kind of long-term thinking is rare in any policy area from modern politicians, and when I read it before the election I was very surprised and hopeful that Britain might finally be making a positive step out of its education duldrums, and maybe even towards sensible policy.
Sadly, though, the election was dominated by Labour talking about the NHS and the Tories wailing about blue-skinned picts invading the mainland, and rational policy-making didn’t get a look in. So I guess now Britain gets the Tory bootheel it asked for. With a Tory majority you can bet that sensible education for the masses will not be part of the policy mix … I wonder if Tristram Hunt even kept his seat?