Cameron Gets it Right on Education, Despite the Rhetoric

14/11/2011 13:20 GMT | Updated 14/01/2012 10:12 GMT

Today the prime minister launched an attack on 'coasting schools' and announced that the government is committed to increasing the number of free schools.

In other words, he's saying that there are a large number of state schools in this country that aren't particularly horrible but that are not maximising the potential of pupils.

Well, it is excellent news that the government is committed not just to fixing the worst schools, and the message will resonate well with the country.

Education is probably the number one cause of angst among middle class parents. And it should be. Within months of announcing the happy news of your first born, questions begin about where little George will be going to school.

That edgy neighbourhood you moved into when you were newlyweds no longer seems so attractive when you notice that grotty little primary with a minuscule playground and kids who look too old for their age. So you find a safe middle class suburb and assume all will be well there.

A year on, you realise that no matter how affluent the town, there are the top schools and the not so good ones. Did you forget to consider catchment when you spent all your spare pennies on what seemed like the perfect family home?

Next thing you know, in a state of panic and rumour about the number of feet in a catchment, you're selling up and moving to a neighbourhood where everyone says you'll get into the best school. Plus, a quick surf on the internet calls up the Ofsted report and it all sounds grand.

Phew. You've pulled it off. Even if you've overextended yourself on the mortgage and decide to eat pot-noodles for a few years, at least you've saved precious George from being consigned to a life a destitution.

Or have you?

For a start, class sizes in some of the best state schools are 30 kids with one teacher and maybe a teaching assistant. Is that a joke? Is a teacher seriously supposed to be able to have the time to ask, "why B grades can't be turned into As", as the Prime Minister implores, when she's lucky if she can keep a load of six-year-olds sitting in their chairs for a unit.

Meanwhile, every year the curriculum mandates and targets change so often that teachers have no idea what to expect from year to year. They do know however that no matter how hard they work, their salaries won't improve much.

So when the prime minister says, "Why should we put up with a school content to let a child sit at the back of the class, swapping Facebook updates?", he knows full-well that no one is willing to, including the school. Then again, when it's an uphill battle to get a bully expelled, frankly, a couple of jokesters looking at Facebook during a lesson is the least of our worries.

In that sense, it seems misguided for the government to imply that teachers are complacent. Demoralised, maybe, but not complacent. And who could blame them anyway with the kinds of constraints they're facing?

The point the Government is missing here is that this should not be a war on 'complacent' schools and slack standards. It should be a war against the way the state school system is organised and incentivised. Nevertheless, the government is right to release more data about schools to promote more transparency, while supporting an expansion of free schools.

In fact, Cameron estimates that over 80 free schools will have opened in England by next September because of this Government's education policy. That is excellent news for parents and pupils in this country.

As soon as a school is released from the restrictions of government funding, roving targets, over-stuffed catchments and caps on teacher salaries, students thrive. As soon as the forces of innovation and competition are released to allow entrepreneurial parents and educators to take over, students learn. And if anyone doubts it, there are plenty of success stories to draw on already, not only from America and Sweden, but also here in Britain.

The Government is right to make education a top political priority, even if some of the rhetoric about complacency and Facebook is a bit ridiculous.

The point is, this government is actually getting it right by committing itself to releasing schools from the burdens of bureaucracy and taking steps to motivate more people to open new schools.

For that, anxious parents should feel encouraged.