Labour and Education

Labour’s education policies are a very mixed bag, argues David Pavett, so which ones will make the manifesto?

LABOUR’S OPPOSITION PERFORMANCE ON EDUCATION SINCE 2010 has, by general consent, been underwhelming. Labour shadow secretaries have opposed the government on specific issues – such as wasting money on free schools where no places are required – while accepting the government’s basic strategy of fragmenting the school system into state funded independent schools.

Unfortunately, the Labour left has generally been unwilling to get involved in educational debate. Sterling work has been done by educational campaign groups but the numbers of activists involved are tiny and the penetration of their ideas into the Labour Party has been weak. Now, with the General Election looming, activists need to familiarise themselves with Labour’s current policies to see what needs to be emphasised, what is misconceived and what should be changed.

The basic toolkit for doing this is the education section of the National Policy Forum (NPF) Annual Report to Conference (September 2014) and the Seven Points campaign of the Reclaiming Education Alliance of the various educational groups. This information can be obtained from the General Election section of the Socialist Education Association website.

Labour’s central proposal is to unify the currently fragmented system by creating local Directors of School Standards (DSS) who will be responsible both for the performance of schools and for setting up new schools. The DSS would be appointed by local authorities from a government-approved list and would be statutorily independent from the Authority. Schools would therefore continue to be kept at arm’s length from local democracy. However, the DSS is required to consult widely, although it is not clear what this would mean in practice.

EducationLabour would continue the Coalition’s academisation programme, albeit in a different way. Formally councils would be able to create new schools but only if they submit their proposals to the DSS for competitive tendering as one provider among others. A clear fault line in the document is illustrated by its declaration that selection for grammar schools harms the interests of all children. Despite that, the NPF rejected calls to end selection on the basis of the (unsubstantiated) claim that this would be a problem for some marginals in Kent.

At the same time, there are some surprises in the document. One is an apparent commitment to the restoration of national bargaining for teaching and non-teaching staff. Some academies have already ended tenure for teachers and hire them only on yearly contracts so this, if implemented, would be very important. It’s something that should not be lost in the manifesto-writing process. The document also contains a series of welcome commitments to such things as Sure Start, the possibility of changing academy status to that of maintained local authority school, reform of Ofsted, improved schools career service and expanded adult education.

I produced a document listing the most positive parts of the NPF document – an Internet search for EducationAndChildrenTheGoodBits.pdf should find it. The Reclaiming Education Alliance involves the education campaign groups on the centre-left. It includes Labour’s affiliate, the Socialist Educational Association, the Campaign for State Education and Comprehensive Futures. Together they have produced Seven Principles to guide the educational policy of a Labour government.

These are:

  • A broad-based national curriculum should be followed by all English schools;
  • Admissions should be based on clear rules drawn up by the local government education service and all selection at eleven should be ended;
  • Inclusion and equal opportunities must underlie everything in education;
  • All schools should be treated equally and funded according to a common formula;
  • All schools within the same area should work together, rather than compete;
  • The inspection system should be replaced by one which is supportive, as well as rigorous;
  • Everyone employed to educate children should have qualified professional status.

Now the same alliance has produced a Draft Bill which it proposes for a Labour-led government. It implements the Seven Principles but in some respects it goes further. Thus it includes a “provision for schools established as Academies prior to the coming into effect of this Act to be converted to maintained schools”. The Seven Points and the Draft Bill can be obtained from the websites of the alliance members.

Education is a complex business and that may be why so many prefer to focus on other issues. However these documents help to lay out a clear path to a revitalised education system able to best serve all our children. If you care about education, then please get informed!

  • For more information, see which also includes the election manifestos from the education unions. David Pavett is active in the Socialist Education Association and blogs on education issues at the Guardian.

Keith Lichman, Secretary of the Campaign for State Education and member of the Reclaiming Education Steering Group, adds:

The underlying problem with Labour is its unwillingness to reverse any privatisations that have taken place and its repackaging of Ofsted’s highly flawed inspection methodology under the guise of a Director of School Standards. The academisation process, which isolates schools from any kind of democratic accountability, has in effect privatised great swathes of the service through out-sourcing. There is really no difference between the academies and free schools programme and the NHS being thrown into the hands of “any competent provider”. The services may be “free at the point of delivery” but a whole lot of money has been creamed off before the service gets to that stage.

David Cameron’s recent threat to start 500 more free schools if the Conservatives form the next government needs to be seen in the context of the 79 free schools already established. 29% (23) have already been judged inadequate or requiring improvement. Hardly a success story – so why continue?

Labour’s “parent-led academies” would be unlikely to fare any better. At present there are 4,991 academies (mainly secondary) out of about 34,000 state funded primary and secondary schools. In performance terms, they are no different from maintained schools but they are disproportionately expensive, leech funds out of the system and are accountable only to their sponsors. There’s still a lot to fight for, however, and a government that put the needs of children before corporate Britain could easily begin to set matters right as our draft Education Bill 2015 shows ( draft Education Bill 2015.pdf). If Labour were elected back to office in May, would Blair’s neoliberal Stepford Wives allow it?

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