Polling on Schools

This week’s Sunday YouGov poll unusually asked a number of questions about education. Despite general polling showing Labour with a lead in answer to the question “which party would best handle education?” the more detailed polling this week is less immediately encouraging.

Would you support schools becoming academies – schools that receive funding directly from the government, are outside the control of local authorities, and have greater freedom over setting their pay, opening times and curriculum?
Yes 40% No 32%

Would you support the creation of Free Schools set up by parents, teachers or voluntary groups outside the control of local authorities?
Yes 36% No 40%

Would you support allowing state schools to be run by private companies that can make a profit if they meet targets and run schools well?
Yes 22% No 58%

Would you support making GCSE and A levels harder
Yes 54% No 22%

The government should encourage more schools to select by academic ability and build more grammar schools
Yes 40%

The government should retain the existing grammar schools, but should not allow more selective schools or new grammar schools to be built
Yes 22%

The government should stop schools selecting by academic ability and the existing grammar schools should be opened to children of all abilities
Yes 21%

It is right to move to more traditional teaching, it is important that schools give children the basic knowledge on things like the Kings and Queens of Britain, reciting poetry and memorising times tables
Yes 41%

It is wrong to move back to more traditional teaching, modern education should be more about teaching children how to understand and learn, rather than just memorising bare facts
Yes 37%

When you dig further into the details of the polling, some more interesting trends appear. Not surprisingly there are differences based on party affiliation. So 62% of Tory voters support academies but only 30% of Labour voters and only 34% of Lib Dems. 64% of Tories want more grammar schools but only 24% of Labour voters and 30% of Lib Dems.

Perhaps more surprisingly there is a very marked age difference in the responses to some questions. People under 30 strongly reject rote learning as the basis of education whereas those over 60 are strongly in favour. Less surprisingly perhaps, young people don’t think exams should be harder. On grammar schools, support for new ones is far stronger amongst older people while young people favour keeping the status quo.

The difference in attitudes to Academies and Free Schools is intriguing given how similar they really are. It may be that Free Schools have become more controversial – and have been opposed by Labour spokesmen whereas Academies have had more cross party support. This perhaps suggests that politicians can make a difference to how the public sees things if they want to.

One of the important things to understand about polling is that the questions, especially complex policy questions are not neutral. What we have here is how the Tories would like to frame the debate on schools. This has become, in the media, the accepted wisdom. It warns those of us who oppose current policies that they will need to get the public asking different questions if they want to get voters on board.

So for example we could be asking:

• Should schools be forced to become academies against the wishes of parents?
• Should decisions about opening new schools be taken by ministers in London or by local communities?
• Should what is taught in schools be decided by getting agreement amongst teachers, parents, employers and universities or by politicians?
• Should some children be denied opportunities because they failed an exam at age 11?
• Is it fair that some schools take far fewer children from poor homes than others in the same area

We must not allow ourselves to be forced to fight on Gove’s terms and using his language. The argument needs to be re-framed. Some debates can be won if the evidence is hammered home – if the question on academies began “Given that there is no evidence that academies have higher standards than other schools….”, the answer might well be different.

Fundamentally, opponents of Gove need to position themselves as defenders of local decision-making, opponents of profit making in education and supporters of getting politicians out of schools. They also need to learn from the polling on free schools that a clear position can gain support. But a half-hearted one won’t.


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