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### Unveiling the Conservatives’ Silent Triumph in Education

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In her weekly newsletter, Roula Khalaf, the Editor of the FT, handpicks her favorite stories to share with readers.

Over the past three decades, the UK has inadvertently conducted a long-term experiment in education policy. Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and England have each taken divergent paths in shaping their approaches to educational policies following devolution. The outcomes are now evident: among these nations, England, in particular, stands out for its educational achievements. Building upon New Labour’s educational strategies, the Conservative party in England has significantly improved educational outcomes. England has ascended in the Pisa international rankings, showcasing advancements in education compared to its counterparts. Even during the challenges posed by the Covid lockdown, England experienced a lesser decline in real-terms educational performance.

Despite the numerous policy experiments undertaken by the Conservatives since 2010, with only a few unequivocal successes, one would expect the government to highlight this achievement. Surprisingly, the government has remained notably silent on this matter, diverting attention instead to discussions on immigration rather than education.

The reticence from the government stems partly from the fact that the improvements in literacy, numeracy, and the successful education of immigrant children in England are bipartisan accomplishments. These advancements are built upon the groundwork laid by education secretaries under Tony Blair, which were, in turn, influenced by the initiatives introduced by former education secretary Kenneth Baker in 1988.

The reluctance of both the government and the opposition to address England’s educational success can be attributed to the politically appealing features of the educational systems in the devolved administrations. While some Conservatives advocate for a return to the traditional grammar schools and secondary moderns system, similar to that still in practice in Northern Ireland and a few English counties, Wales has forged a modern education system under the Labour party’s guidance, with support from the Welsh Liberal Democrats.

Acknowledging the successes in England’s education system over the past three decades would require a candid discussion about the shortcomings of existing policies, a conversation neither side seems eager to initiate. However, recognizing and promoting these achievements could benefit the Conservatives in their current term and offer valuable insights to the Labour party as well.

Reflecting on the past, particularly the tenure of Michael Gove as education secretary, sheds light on the challenges faced in implementing reforms. Gove’s characterization of opponents as “the blob” highlighted the resistance from various education stakeholders, ranging from senior headteachers to teaching unions. This resistance, often seen as a hindrance, continues to influence the Conservative party’s approach to policymaking.

Beyond the education sector, similar challenges persist in other areas such as criminal justice. Identifying and addressing entrenched interests that impede progress is essential for effective governance. The need to distinguish between misplaced stakeholder interests and constructive institutional feedback remains a crucial aspect of policy development.

Lessons learned from the successes in education policy can guide future decision-making processes for the Conservative party. Emphasizing the significance of thoughtful deliberation and strategic planning, whether in power or as part of the opposition, can greatly benefit the party’s overall effectiveness.