George Osborne is not an easy man to love.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer has the great misfortune not only to be rich but to look it too.
“The trouble with Michael,” Thatcher-era minister Michael Jopling once stung Lord Heseltine, “is that he had to buy all his furniture.”
Osborne does not have the appearance of a man who’s spent much time in IKEA.
He has also been co-pilot of a Tory party that came to power speaking progressive language (remember “Vote Blue, Go Green”?) but delivered harsh cuts and tough-guy talk on benefits.
Add to that the mean-spirited victimisation of the poor and the vulnerable. The squalid rhetoric on immigration and lacklustre efforts on refugees. The smartest-guys-in-the-room sneering at everyone outside the Cameron clique. (The playing fields of Eton have made them frightfully smug.)
All the hard hat photo-ops in the world aren’t going to win the folk down the pub round to Gideon.
But a line in his Budget today goes some way to making up for this:
“By 2020 every primary and secondary school in England will be, or be in the process of becoming, an academy.”
‘Academisation’ is the ugly term for this but the concept is attractive indeed. Power over schools rent from the clunking fists of local government bureaucrats and handed to parents and teachers.
Delivering his Budget statement, Osborne said: “The next part of our plan to make Britain fit for the future is to improve the quality of our children’s education. Providing great schooling is the single most important thing we can do to help any child from a disadvantaged background succeed.
“It’s also the single most important thing we can do to boost the long-term productivity of our economy. Because our nation’s productivity is no more and no less than the combined talents and efforts of the people of these islands. That is why education reform has been so central to our mission.”
He told MPs: “We are going to complete the task of setting schools free from local education bureaucracy and we’re going to do it in this Parliament. I am today providing extra funding so that by 2020 every primary and secondary school in England will be, or be in the process of becoming, an academy.”
It is a bold, daring move that returns the Conservatives to their 1980s agenda of liberalisation and empowerment while at the same time positioning them in the centre ground against a Labour Party captured by the far-Left.
Predictably those denizens of conservatism, the teaching unions, have been swift and loud in their condemnation. This is surely a good sign. Only when the NUT burns Osborne in effigy can we be certain of the merits of this policy.
There are caveats aplenty. The transformation must be fully funded or risk stalling – and undermining the academy model in the process. It has to involve parents at every stage and encourage the less active to become more involved in their children’s education.
The compulsory nature of the policy will be a touch too illiberal for some tastes. Education choice cuts both ways. Parents should have the choice to send their child to a bog-standard council-run school, though why anyone would want to is a mystery.
And in setting schools free, central government should resist the temptation to intervene down the line. Headteachers should be permitted to set staff pay, school hours, and opt out of the national curriculum without the interference of ministers. Diktats are no more conducive to delivering quality education simply because they come from Whitehall rather than the town hall.
It’s true, Osborne has simply taken former education secretary Michael Gove’s reforms to their logical conclusion. But in being the man to do so, he could become the father of a schools revolution in England.
Of course, it doesn’t undo other Tory mistakes or help Osborne over the hurdle of being a posh boy in a country still obsessed by class. What it does is show a policy ambition lacking elsewhere in the UK.
The Chancellor cannot liberate Scottish schools as he plans to do with their English counterparts. Education is devolved to the Scottish Parliament and administrations red and yellow have shown themselves to be stultifyingly conservative when it comes to schools reform.
Scotland’s education secretary is Nicola Sturgeon – let’s dispense with the fiction that Angela Constance actually makes the decisions – and it is up to her whether Scottish children get the same opportunity as those south of the border.
Sturgeon has thus far shown none of the boldness on education brought to the brief by Gove or by Osborne in today’s Budget. Consider the case of St Joseph’s Primary School in Milngavie, which is set to be closed, leaving the East Dunbartonshire town without a Catholic primary school. After their pleas to keep the school open – and fulfil the legal obligation to provide their children with a faith education – were dismissed by the local authority, the parents of St Joseph’s proposed that they be allowed to take it over.
Under their plan, an independent board would be appointed to run the school and funding would come from a mixture of state, private, and third sector sources. Thus would parents be able to secure a quality academic education for their offspring while maintaining a Catholic ethos.
After months of campaigning, the parents were granted an audience with the First Minister in March 2015. One year on, there has still been no public announcement about the fate of St Joseph’s.
It hardly inspires confidence about Sturgeon’s willingness to embrace schools reform on the scale touted by the Chancellor. Which is a pity because nowhere is it written that schoolchildren in England must receive a better education than schoolchildren in Scotland.
The SNP enjoys unparalleled popularity and Nicola Sturgeon more power than any First Minister who went before her. Education is one area where she could choose to use her position of strength to sweep aside the “aye been” attitude endemic in Scottish public policymaking and bring about radical changes.
Like the Chancellor, she could put parents and pupils before special interests and give children in Scotland the chance of a better education, one that equips them to compete in an increasingly global labour market.
She could allow us to say once again, and honestly this time, that a Scottish education is the envy of the world.
Or she could continue the Salmond leadership model of populism and triangulation, opting to walk cautiously and avoid hard decisions to hasten the coming of independence.
The decision lies with the First Minister. It’s her political capital. She’s built it up. It’s up to her how she spends it, or if she ever does. But if she doesn’t, and even if she eventually achieves independence, she should bear in mind that poll ratings are fleeting but legacies linger on.
And what a legacy: The First Minister who was less radical on education than George Osborne.
All the foam fingers and selfies in the world can’t make up for that.