Over 200 people attended the event at Leamington Town Hall, which was chaired by Chief Executive of the National Governance Association, Emma Knights. The debate was organised by local pressure group Our Schools: Face The Crisis, Fight The Cuts, who aimed to “discuss ways in which we can take action locally to fight the cuts nationally”.
Candidates were invited to give three-minute opening statements, before answering questions from local parents, teachers and students within the audience, regarding their parties’ respective education policies. Former President of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) Philipa Harvey, also took part in the event.
Grammar schools were almost universally condemned by the panel, with the Labour, Liberal Democrat, and Green candidates opposed the Conservative party’s pledge to lift the ban on the creation of selective schools. Labour candidate Matt Western, a county councillor for Warwickshire, called the plans “misplaced” and the “personal ideology” of Theresa May’s government.
Conservative candidate Chris White also voiced his opposition to his party’s policy, calling grammar schools “a distraction” from more beneficial initiatives. UKIP candidate Bob Dhillon emphasised the need for a range of schools, but added that grammar schools should be diverse and should not affect funding for comprehensives.
Philipa Harvey, who stressed that the NUT is not affiliated with any political party, presented a critical assessment of the government’s education cuts since 2010. Harvey also expressed her opposition to grammar schools and condemned “any party that includes them in their manifesto”.
Education funding was a key concern of many audience members, with schools across Warwickshire facing £30 million in cuts by 2020. With an additional £4 billion pledged to education in the Conservative manifesto, Chris White vowed to fight for the largest proportion possible for his constituency.
Liberal Democrat candidate Nick Solman highlighted his party’s pledge to add £6.9 billion to the education budget over the course of the next parliament, calling the move the “first step” in addressing the effect of the cuts. Green candidate Jonathan Chilvers also reiterated his party’s promise to inject an extra £7 billion into the education budget.
The Conservative Party’s ‘Fairer Funding Formula’ was challenged by panel members and those in the audience. The debate devolved into shouting at several points in the evening, particularly revolving Chris White’s comments on scrapping free lunches.
Proposed sources of funding by the candidates were diverse, with Matt Western stressing that the Labour party’s education policy was “fully costed”. Jonathan Chilvers proposed an increased corporation tax on large businesses and more powerful measures against tax evasion. Conversely, Bob Dhillon opposed increased corporation tax in a post-Brexit economy, but suggested a tax on bankers’ bonuses and scrapping HS2 to redirect funds for education.
Other topics discussed by the candidates were: cuts to ‘Sure Start’, reduced testing for under 11’s, and the role of creativity within the curriculum. All candidates thanked the efforts of teaching staff and parents, and praised the achievements of educational professionals both locally and nationally.
Higher education was not extensively discussed in the 90 minute debate, but Nick Soloman described tuition fees as “the best long-term funding solution” for university funding.
Event organiser and secondary school teacher Emma Mort said she was “amazed and encouraged” by the high turnout at the debate, and revealed that one parliamentary candidate did not believe there would be sufficient interest to hold an education event.
Ms Mort pledged that she and other campaigners would hold whoever is elected to account for their promises at the debate. Many of those who had organised the debate had previously taken part in a rally this month in Leamington, to protest against the cuts to the NHS and education.