Cameron’s mummy problem: will war on mediocre schools help?

But PM's line on academies and Three Rs comes straight from Gove – who proved ‘toxic’ with mums

The Mole

It’s E for Education Day in the election campaign, with David Cameron threatening to turn more failing schools into academies and making a big push for the Three Rs for primary schoolchildren. But will his “war on mediocrity” help to endear him to mothers?

As the Financial Times reports today, new polling finds the PM has a “mummy problem”. Only 28 per cent of mothers with children under 18 plan to vote Conservative on 7 May, compared with 48 per cent for Labour, according to Populus.

Laurence Stellings, associate director at the pollster, said there were two factors pushing mothers towards Labour: the squeeze on living standards under the coalition government and worries about the NHS, schools and local council services.

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“From the focus groups we do, women do tend to be more concerned about public services and cost-of-living issues; men by macroeconomic issues and international politics. It’s not a uniform split, but it is noticeable,” said Stellings.

Another survey of women voters, conducted by TNS for Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour programme, puts the NHS, living costs and family care pressures as their top concerns – though not schooling.

The poll also found that 48 per cent of women feel that none of the current party leaders understands what life is like for them and their families.

Cameron is acutely aware that he has a “mummy problem”. That is why he replaced former Education Secretary Michael Gove with mother-of-one Nicky Morgan after polling conducted for Tory election strategist Lynton Crosby showed Gove was “toxic” with school-run mums.

But Morgan is having a hard job convincing other mums (her son is six) that she is actually in charge. Gove is said to be still pulling the strings at the Education Department despite having being shunted off to the whips’ office. Morgan sounded less than convincing on the Andrew Marr Show yesterday when she resorted to the desperate line: “I’m in charge”.

She dismissed as “a load of old nonsense” an Independent on Sunday report that Gove was reading all her Education Department papers and acting as her "back seat driver”.

Yet Cameron’s speech today in which he will announce that schools rated by Ofsted as “requiring improvement” could be forced to become academies (currently only schools categorised as “inadequate” face this sanction) comes straight from the Gove playbook.

Morgan has shown she is a fighter, however. She has won a Cabinet battle to ring-fence education spending along with the NHS, overseas aid, pensions and pensioners’ perks.

That has set alarm bells ringing in other government departments where ministers see their own budgets being subjected to more savage cuts after the election. Defence and welfare benefits not covered by ring-fencing are particularly susceptible to Chancellor George Osborne’s scalpel.

This may all sound like relatively good news for Ed Miliband, still recovering from a battering last week by the Blairites and some pretty painful newspaper headlines over the weekend.

But Ed has his own education problem – because of his determination to cut university tuition fees from £9,000 a year to £6,000, at a cost to the Exchequer of £2 billion a year.

It might win a few more votes among the student population - if they can be bothered to register to vote - but university vice-chancellors are up in arms. In a letter The Times, they say cutting fees will benefit only rich students “and could remove opportunities for poorer students, who are applying in record numbers”.

Miliband might feel he would rather face the wrath of the university bigwigs than risk losing the “mummy” vote on 7 May.

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