What did we learn from this week’s education policy debate?

TV debates are about personalities rather than policy, which is what manifestos are for, but in this week’s education debate with the parties’ education spokespeople what we learned is that the three main parties’ approaches to education are all very similar. You only have to listen to Conservative Nicky Morgan complaining about teacher workload and Labour’s Tristram Hunt advocating the need for greater school autonomy, to realise that the main parties are making the broadly same arguments as each other.

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan told us she would keep the education system on the same “road to improvement” she insisted the Conservative Party has taken it down.

Schools Minister David Laws implied the Liberal Democrats would balance the Tory’s instinct for autonomy for educational institutions and Labour’s intentions to over-regulate.

Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt endeavoured to focus every argument about school improvement on the need for all teachers to have qualified teacher status (QTS).

The Green education spokesperson James Humphreys was more radical, essentially arguing that England should implement the Finnish-style system of education with children starting school aged seven.

Finally, UKIP’s Jonathan Arnott was the feistiest of five and called for the re-establishment of the grammar-comprehensive school model.

It was interesting to see Tristram Hunt pushed on his QTS policy and admit that those specialist teachers in shortage subjects who were “not on the road to QTS by the end of the Parliament” would be forced to leave their jobs. Hunt was also was criticised for using inaccurate statistics on the attainment progress of deprived children and did not seem to know the detail of Labour’s childcare policy.

David Laws attempted early in the debate to try and distance himself from the Conservatives by insisting the Liberal Democrats had successfully protected the schools budget and will continue to do so. Yet Laws proved those who believe he is instinctively closer to the Tories correct by vigorously defending the Coalition Government’s record against Hunt and on Morgan’s behalf throughout the debate.

Nicky Morgan tried to stay above the fray but did revert to making party political pot-shots at Labour’s spending plans when she could. Morgan was also interestingly blunt when she criticised her immediate predecessor (Michael Gove) for being not interested in reducing teacher workloads. She spoke up for free schools and almost accepted the implication from moderator Andrew Neil that the policy had not been well communicated to the public.

What we learnt from the debate was that the three parties’ positions on education policy only differs on details rather than philosophy, with all pledging to improve the attainment gap between deprived and more affluent pupils, make more free childcare available to working families and improve technical education. For those who do not believe the education system is broadly on the right path, it is UKIP and the Greens on the political fringes who are offering the more radical ideological alternatives.

For information on the education policies of all the political parties, visit www.de-mob.co.uk.