THE BLOG

Whatever Happened to Education?

14/11/2014 15:03 GMT | Updated 14/01/2015 10:59 GMT

"Education, education, education". At one point it felt like the slogan which really captured what Tony Blair's New Labour project was all about.

Certainly it was an issue which struck a chord with the voters. In 1997 it stood squarely at the top of the public's "worry list" of issues facing Britain. Our first sounding after the Labour landslide, in April of that year, saw 54% mention it as a pressing priority.

Those days are very much behind us. Last month's Issues Index found education down in 8th place, with just 12% singling it out as a concern.

And yet the last five years in particular have hardly been a quiet time. Higher education has seen continued upheaval in the wake of continued expansion and ongoing arguments about tuition fees. Meanwhile, Britain's schools have seen big changes. Michael Gove's programme during his time as Education Secretary caused consternation among his political opponents. Nor were they universally welcomed by schools on the ground.

Time will tell whether Gove will, in years to come, truly be seen as a "revolutionary" Secretary of State. But however turbulent it may have felt to those involved, what's striking is that his changes were implemented without causing undue alarm among the public at large. Witness its status now as a "second order" issue.

It's also worth adding that the post-2010 reforms has made no impact at all on the public's view on which party has the best policies on education. Michael Gove entered the Department for Education with the public evenly split on whether it was Labour or the Conservatives who have the best programme. And so it remains. It's a score draw. Or maybe even a no-score draw.

In some ways this feels a bit odd. After all, when we look back, what's been introduced in recent years - free schools, curriculum changes, exam reforms and the like - has been pretty controversial. So why are the public not more bothered? We can certainly point to education being "squeezed", as concerns about other issues have come to the fore, most notably the economy and immigration.

But there seems to be more to it than that. To coin a phrase from those Blair years, things may actually be getting better. Let's look at school leaders. It's true that, when we ask them to rate how the Government is doing, the response is emphatic: 47% are very dissatisfied with their performance. But ask these same school leaders to rate teaching in their school and 93% rate it as at good or better. And - whatever their criticisms of Government policy - they feel that standards are improving: 45% of school leaders say the quality of education in England's schools is better than it was in 2010; just 20% say things have got worse.

And the public agree too. By a similar margin - 43% to 22% - they say things have got better rather than worse over the last five years. It's in areas like the NHS and care for the elderly where they are more concerned about the direction of travel.

Ipsos MORI Issues Facing Britain - Education

What about the most important stakeholders of all in all this - Britain's young people? Leaving aside the debate about whether standards are rising or not, we can also say some positive things about the characteristics of current generation of students going through our education system. As our work for the National Children's Bureau shows, they feel a sense of individual responsibility, that they can achieve what they want to in life if they work at it. They are less likely to take drugs, drink alcohol, smoke or become teenage parents than previous cohorts. And they are (reasonably) optimistic about the future.

So, rather than worry about why education is "languishing" as a lesser order issue, perhaps we should see it as a sign of relative success. When we at Ipsos MORI analyse public opinion, we frequently conclude that Britain is better than it perhaps thinks it is. And, judging by what the experts are saying about teaching and what the students are telling us about their hopes and motivations, education may well fall into that category.