Rachel Wolf: We must now focus on what goes on inside the classroom

Rachel Wolf is a member of the Advisory Council of Parents & Teachers for Excellence and a former special adviser on education to the Prime Minister.

The policy debates that take place in Westminster often bear little resemblance to those that take place on the same issues amongst the general public. But perhaps the biggest and most surprising gap lies in the field of education.

A very significant proportion of the population has a direct stake in the education system - because they attend school, send their child to a school, teach or perform some sort of service to their local school. And yet so few of these people really take part in what we might call the national public conversation on education policy. 

For most of the last decade, we in Westminster have been focused on the structure of the education system. Initially, everything was about Academies; then it was all about free schools. Now, we're focusing increasingly on grammar schools – and this debate looks set to rage for the rest of this Parliament.

Such a focus on structures was important. While many schools did well operating as traditional, maintained schools (and continue to thrive), others found their relationship to Local Authorities to be excessively constraining. Allowing schools to become Academies and Free Schools has encouraged a wave of creativity within the education system that vast numbers of children are benefiting from.

But despite these benefits, there is no denying that the focus on these reforms largely passed parents by. They did so because parents are fixated with one thing above all: standards. They don't care about the structure of the education system, nor the status of their local school. What they do care about is what is taught and how – and the culture and ethos of a school. 

As we start to consider the next round of education reforms, it is this focus on raising standards that must lie at the heart of everything we do and everything we communicate to parents. It is vital that we include parents in what is arguably the single most important policy area for the country. 

It was this desire to take the education debate to ordinary parents - and those that work in schools across the country - that led us to create a new campaign: Parents & Teachers for Excellence. We want to show what real excellence within our schools looks like and how best to achieve it. 

On a practical level, that means promoting four key things: a knowledge-based curriculum, regular rigorous assessment, cultural enrichment for all and high expectation of behaviour. 

The knowledge vs. skills debate has been raging among education academics and teachers for decades. But we are now at a turning point: our growing understanding of the brain has made it clear that knowledge-based teaching is the most effective. That means making sure students are given coherent, fact-based content in clear subject disciplines like history, geography, chemistry, and physics - and the earlier the better. This may seem like common sense, but it is still absent in many schools. Knowledge should be extended through rich extra-curricular activities. Deep experience of drama, music, and museums are still the preserve of the wealthy.

So is sensible testing. Many of the best secondary schools test children very regularly, and they recognise that tests are more reliable and more effective than other forms of assessment. But too many schools still resist testing as an 'evil'- meaning parents don't know how well their kids are doing, teachers don't have a reliable sense of where students are, and pupils can't improve most effectively.

Underpinning this, of course, is good behaviour. Parents care about this more than any other issue - partly because they want their kids to be safe, and partly because they know its a prerequisite for learning. Yet there are still schools that have inadequate behaviour and where classes are routinely disrupted. Fixing these issues is possible for any school, anywhere.

All of these reforms are part of the package that we want to start promoting, and that we believe should be taking centre stage in policy debates. The time for discussing school structures has passed; we must now focus on what goes on inside the classroom, rather than what building it is in. Opponents of these policies have in the past impeded progress for far too many schools, but we need to change that. Parents and Teachers for Excellence is going to be a nationwide campaign creating local networks that will seek to do this; if you agree with us, please sign up.