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Recently, the Government published the first external observations of primary school pupils’ performance since before the pandemic. The results were not a surprise, but that did not make them any less shocking. They show a striking decline in performance from pre-pandemic levels, or put another way, at least five years of progress in improving attainment have been lost due to COVID-19.

You might expect this news to dominate headlines on education, or politicians falling over themselves to talk about how we get school standards back up to scratch. Instead, the media seem more concerned with reporting on the outrage of ‘woke’ curriculum changes, or to how schools handle (or mishandle) trans issues. It is clear that there are some who would like to make schools the next front in the so-called culture wars, something that not only risks creating division, but would also be a major distraction from returning to the education reform agenda that was the flagship mission of the Cameron Government under Michael Gove and Nicky Morgan.

There is no doubt that subsequent administrations have allowed that agenda to drift. Where is the ambition to ensure more young people study the EBacc subjects up until the age of 16? In focus groups, parents we speak to are often baffled at the idea that you could simply stop studying both history or geography at the age of 14. Or where is the thinking about how we build on Nick Gibb’s triumph in introducing the phonics check to improve early reading to also improve young people’s maths and numeracy? The standards drive seems to have fallen off the agenda.

That is not to say no progress has been made. Outside of central government, under Amanda Spielman’s leadership, Ofsted has been filling the gaps the Government has left behind by directing inspectors to clamp down on teaching to the test and check children are actually studying a deep and rich curriculum. Within government, there has been an important drive to improve the quality of technical and vocational education post-16. But now is the time to turn back to an agenda focused on standards and doing so means ensuring the education debate is not caught up in energy sapping culture war rows.

Parents have little interest in these fights too. When polled what measures should be prioritised to help better prepare children and young people for adult life, the top results were focusing on the basics like English and Maths, proper work experience and supporting young people’s mental health. Clearly, the public think the focus should be on these key issues, rather than debates which only excite a minority.

When parents do talk about these cultural rows, they instead see the need for balance. In a recent focus group in Guildford, not a single one of our participants had heard anything about the proposed changes to the English GCSE curriculum – removing poets like Larkin to make room for those from ethnic minorities. When the ‘row’ was explained to them they accepted the need to update curriculums, but did not want it to be too excessive.

And the truth is that schools are already getting on and handling more tricky culture wars issues. In More in Common’s recent study, Britons and Gender Identity, we found that on issues like trans, parents thought that schools were broadly handling it sensitively and well.

Where schools get into trouble it tends to be when they adopt the wholesale views of campaign groups, without recognising the importance of teaching different perspectives, particularly on issues which remain contested. In particular, schools need to avoid the danger of importing American framings on issues that just do not fit the UK context. Our polling finds that, for instance, just 37% think that schools should be “teaching young people about white privilege.” By comparison, “making sure the curriculum is diverse, including covering authors, and historical figures from ethnic minority backgrounds” received 63% support. Using non-controversial, ideology-free approaches is much more likely to command parental support.

Schools can instead play a positive role in trying to tackle the culture wars of the future, by creating a space where children feel free to be able to express different points of view and to respectfully challenge and ask questions about the points of view of others as well. As part of schools’ requirement to teach fundamental British values, they should find opportunities to encourage and foster healthy debate – recognising that an important part of becoming an adult is being able to show respect for people who approach things differently from the way that you do. The fact the pandemic has set back years of progress in raising school standards is a travesty. But it would be truly unforgivable if the hard work and energy needed to repair that damage is instead diverted to overblown culture war battles that serve neither parents or children well.

Luke Tryl is the UK Director of More In Common. This article first appeared in our Centre Write magazine State shifting?. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Feliphe Schiarolli]