It may seem that after all the recent upheaval in education policy there is no need for further reform, but this could not be further from the truth. Change is badly needed, firstly to improve the international competitiveness of UK firms by boosting human capital, but also to create a fairer and more meritocratic society. Though grounds of fairness are often used by the left, Conservatives’ support for free competition means that they must create an environment in which individuals compete fairly and openly for employment based on their talents and hard work, not circumstantial advantage. This can only be achieved by raising schools’ standards to curb educational inequality. Finally, there are party-centric reasons to promote educational reform as a means of appealing to younger voters, who at present often feel that Conservative politics offers them little in the way of opportunity.
In true Conservative fashion, the first reason presented in favour of reform is business-like and pragmatic. Despite efforts at improving the education system, the UK still lags behind not only more developed countries like Finland and Canada in the PISA reading, maths, and science tests, but also Taiwan and Estonia. Furthermore, world leaders Singapore are increasing their already sizeable lead in education standards. As Britain plunges headfirst into Brexit and seeks to compete freely in a global marketplace, it is essential that the country has a highly skilled, educated workforce that can give British firms the edge over foreign rivals. Although some may regret this arguably cold and clinical approach to education, claiming that its aim should be to enrich the lives of citizens and promote the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, this goal is a luxury that should not be prioritised when public funding is restricted. After all, an education that fails to prepare citizens for stable and successful careers in unlikely to lead them to fulfilled lives, no matter how academically enriched they supposedly are.
However, there is another important reason to promote educational reform – fairness. It is a sad fact that education inequality in modern Britain remains shockingly high, with little improvement since the 1980s despite New Labour’s promised focus on “education, education, education”. The Commission on Inequality in Education’s 2017 report found that there are significant disparities in attainment at GCSE level, with London seeing over 60% of its pupils gaining 5+ good GCSEs (A*-C) including English and Maths, while only 55% achieve this in the West and East Midlands. Even at the age of 11, Yorkshire & Humberside and the West Midlands have a disproportionate number of low-scoring pupils. Although media coverage focusses on the inferior quality of schooling in the North of England, it is easy to forget that the Midlands is the country’s worst performing region and also badly needs improvement. Furthermore, socio-economic and regional inequalities persist at university level, with Oxford’s latest admissions statistics revealing that they admitted more students from the top twelve public schools than from all state comprehensives across the whole country in 2017. This is absurd considering that, according to a House of Commons Briefing Paper in March 2017, roughly 85% of students attend state comprehensives, and surely means that some talented young people are missing out on an education that would be hugely beneficial to them.
As adults we have the freedom to relocate to a different part of the country in search of work, better economic conditions, or improved living standards, but as children we are trapped within whatever educational opportunities can be found locally. In the Home Counties this may mean a degree of choice if private schooling is out of reach between a Grammar – grades permitting – and a state comprehensive, but for vast swathes of the country one’s school is entirely a matter of postcode lottery. This would be permissible if the standard of schooling was consistently high, but when the gap not only between private and state schools, but even between state schools in different regions is so great, the current state of affairs cannot be allowed to persist. Although in some ways Conservatives may be reluctant to return to this policy area given the controversy over recent reforms and a near instinctive fear of government intervention, they must – not only for pragmatic reasons but also on grounds of justice. As defenders of free markets and competition this thinking must also be applied to the labour market, building a meritocracy in which hard work and talent, not chance advantage, are the determinants of success and ensure that those who are genuinely most suited to a given position achieve it. Individuals must rise and fall on their own merits, giving all the opportunity to fulfil their potential while simultaneously making it easier for businesses to recruit the best fit for their needs.
Finally, to those who remain unpersuaded by the case for reform made out thus far, I present a cynical justification for educational reform. If the party fails to at least make younger voters feel that they begin life from a fair starting point – let alone genuinely improve fairness – then it is unclear why they would vote Conservative. The party encourages individuals to pursue their ambitions, start their own enterprises, and live free from others’ interference, but without the means to seize these opportunities, they are somewhat empty promises. Giving younger voters the right educational tools to live free lives, with choice over their careers and the chance to purchase their own home and thus gain a stake in our society, could go a long way towards showing them that the Conservatives really are the party of opportunity. If it cannot manage this, then the prospect of a hard-left victory under Jeremy Corbyn becomes worryingly believable.
In conclusion, even if one is unconvinced by the need to boost the UK’s competitiveness via education and iron out regional and socio-economic inequalities, party interest leads one naturally to the conclusion that educational reform is necessary and urgent. Nonetheless, this article maintains that the practical need to ensure British firms can compete freely on an international stage post-Brexit, as well as the moral justification for improving fairness, are weighty enough reasons to tackle the currently disappointing state of education in this country.