If education is not a high priority nationally, it could be local concerns that count

By Geoff Gee - Part of our Election 2015 blog series

Thursday 29 January 2015

In a recent poll voters were asked what issues would be important to them in the forthcoming general election. Education comes out as a relatively low priority.

A similar picture comes from the Economist/Ipsos MORI issues index which shows trends in voter concerns over time. The last time the position of education was as low in the rankings as it is now was at the time of the financial crash in 2008 (and that was the lowest it had been since the 1980s). But the key word here is ‘relatively’ – these polls tell us that when concern over issues like the economy or the NHS is high, education slips down the list.

Conor Ryan of the Sutton Trust attributes the poll position to the fact that ‘underneath the often overblown rhetoric’ there is a lot of ‘consensus and continuity with the main political parties’. At the risk of ‘stirring up apathy’, it may be worth pointing to another factor: many voters closest to what is happening in schools – parents – are satisfied with their child’s education. The Longitudinal Study of Young People in England (LSYPE2), based on a sample of 13,100 Year 9 children, shows a large majority (90 per cent) of parents rate their child’s school as good or very good overall. The report notes that: “Overwhelmingly, parents were satisfied with the school’s discipline, the subjects on offer and the interest the teachers showed in their child.”

Despite all this, it seems implausible that education will not feature in the campaign. Evidence for this view comes from the ease with which it is possible to find examples of Members of Parliament publicly engaging with school issues. What is notable is how much the issues vary from one place to another.

• In Sevenoaks, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon has backed the local campaign for a new grammar school. In Maidenhead, Home Secretary Theresa May has offered qualified support for moves to open a grammar school there.
• In Birmingham, MPs from the three main parties have tended to present a united front on developments linked to radicalisation in the City’s schools, but these are far from over.
• Pressure on school places looms large in a number of constituencies: a group of MPs in Suffolk have been lobbying the minister about funding, Bradford MP David Ward has tabled a question on the situation in his city and Gavin Shuker has been banging the drum on the same issue in Luton.
• In Hertfordshire, James Clappison is keen to be associated with the establishment of a new free school, whereas Reading MP Rob Wilson is between a rock and a hard place, backing a new free school that is the subject of a fierce campaign by residents over the process for choosing its site.

Those examples all come from England. Let’s not forget that in this UK election there are four education systems in the four home countries, and it is not unknown for politicians to make their point by drawing comparisons between those countries.

All general elections are 600+ local elections. The unpredictability of the outcome of this election means that local factors will loom larger than usual, as acknowledged by a number of political commentators and pollsters. If party strategists are out of touch and misled by national polling, politicians may be forced to respond to voter concerns about a range of local education issues and the ‘consensus and continuity’ referred to by Conor Ryan could be shaken up.