Ed Balls came to the House for a debate on Education and Health with a soundbite in mind. He intended to share it with Parliament, the media and anyone else still listening. It praised the government and ran down the Conservatives in a predictable and foolish way.
The soundbite was that Labour wants educational excellence for all, the Conservatives for the few.
Like so much from this government, the soundbite was too clever by half. It seeks to mislead people about Conservative policy, and confuse them in a favourable way about Labour policy. He did little to explain how his policy would work in practise, and why we should believe standards will make a great leap forward on his watch. There was little detail on how the large number of students who do not do well at GCSE and leave school at 16 would suddenly be transformed by another two years of school or College.
The truth is both the Labour and Conservative parties want to extend educational opportunity to all, and both strive to make public sector education better for the many who will rely on tax financed schooling. The Conservatives do not wish to limit excellence to the few.
The truth is also that under either a Labour or Conservative government there will be students who do not achieve the excellence that Ministers and teachers would like. Labour’s aspiration is not very different from the Conservative one, and Labour’s results are disappointing judged by the grand claim of their Schools Secretary. Conservatives are more honest in admitting that not everyone will be able to achieve academic excellence or vocational excellence, whatever policy is adopted. We are a long way from that happy outcome today, yet the Secretary of State showed no humility before the scale of the task, or even any recognition of how many pupils find school a disappointment that does not work for them.
The debate should have been about the detail. Given that all main parties want the best for all children, the debate should be about whether new diplomas replacing A levels and the current raft of vocational qualifications will make such a difference to real achievement as the goverbment asserts. The debate should be about how courses and curricula can be made more relevant – whilst maintaining or raising standards – to engage more students willingly in learning. The debate should be about whether compulsion to 18 will work where compulsion to 16 does not work for all too many at the moment. I am not proposing a lowering of the school leaving age but a recognition of the reality that some 14-16 years olds do not value school as it is today, and more work to engage the 14-16 year olds before compelling the 16-18 year olds to stay.