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2 February 2015updated 24 Jul 2021 11:05am

Weaponising education: Tories attack schools while Labour clashes with universities

Both parties are grappling with their approaches to education as the election campaign heats up.

By Anoosh Chakelian

As the election campaign heats up, both parties are grappling with their approaches to the area of policy-making and public spending that never fails to have emotions running high: education.

While David Cameron is making a speech today in which he will promise a “war” on mediocrity in schools, Ed Miliband will be trying to work out a way of defending his party from attacks from the university sector on his hinted plan to cut tuition fees.

The PM’s war on schools

As it was heavily suggested by the good cop Education Secretary Nicky Morgan over the weekend that the Conservatives will pledge to ringfence education spending again, David Cameron’s trailed speech this morning suggests there is a bad cop element of Tory policy for schools too.

The Prime Minister will make a speech today warning that schools judged as “requiring improvement” by Ofsted will face being forced under new leadership. Some 3,500 supposedly “coasting” schools (720 secondary and 2,600 primary) could undergo a takeover from a new “superhead” teacher, a successful local school, or an academy trust.

In aggressive language that can only be considered electionese, Cameron is voicing this policy as a way to “wage an all-out war on mediocrity”.

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Universities warn Labour against fee cut

Ed Miliband has come under attack from a number of leading universities criticising his potential plan to cut annual tuition fees from £9,000 to £6,000. They call the hinted higher education policy from Labour “implausible”.

Universities UK, a group of English vice-chancellors, have had a letter published in the Times today warning against the £10bn revenue hole over five years they believe Miliband’s cut in tuition fees would bring about.

They argue that students from less privileged backgrounds would benefit more from financial support for living costs from the government rather than what they call “cuts to universities that would damage the economy”.


Both of these examples of education wrangling suggest that each of the parties, in their own way, are attempting to “weaponise” education ahead of the general election. Cameron seems to be storming ahead with the tough approach to the pressures teachers and schools are under pioneered by his infamous former Education Secretary Michael Gove, while putting a sympathetic face on the policy via Morgan. Miliband, in contrast, is focusing on higher education and wooing the student vote with a so far unannounced policy to make university cheaper, following the notorious Lib Dem-permitted hike under the current government.

Labour looks most vulnerable so far in the education election wars, as there is not much evidence that the coalition’s higher fees have actually put school pupils off applying to universities, and there is some fear that lowering the fees would not help poorer students. Also, its shadow education secretary, Tristram Hunt, has so far not had a particularly forthright or radical offer in response to Cameron’s attack on mediocre schools and championing of the coalition’s free schools and expansion of the academies system.

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