Geoff Barton on Labour’s manifesto: 'There's good, there's bad and there's woolly'

'Well-intentioned, but woefully vague': Jeremy Corybn's bold promises need a bit more detail, writes Association of School and College Leaders' new general secretary, as he picks apart Labour's manifesto

Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

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The good 

Let’s start with the good. The party had already set out its plans to improve the level of school funding and reverse real-terms cuts, and we are pleased to see that investment is number one in the “four foundations” of its schools policy. This reflects ASCL’s own manifesto, in which funding is also the top priority.

Everybody in education will welcome such a commitment at a time when budgets are having to be slashed with severe consequences in terms of rising class sizes, reduced support services and cuts to curriculum options. 

It is also good to see that Labour commits to bringing funding for 16- to 18-year-olds in line with key stage 4 baselines. The stark reality is that 16-18 education is woefully underfunded at present, and this urgently needs to be addressed.

Labour’s pledge to tackle the teacher recruitment and retention crisis – though somewhat skimpy on detail – will also be welcomed. We had it as our second manifesto principle. Labour says it will end the public sector pay cap, and this is a much-needed measure, as teacher salaries have declined significantly in real terms. It is also good to see that it intends to tackle the issue of excessive workloads “by reducing monitoring and bureaucracy”, although it is not clear exactly how it would do so.

Three cheers, too, for the Labour commitment to "scrapping the Conservatives’ nonsensical plan for schools to pay the apprenticeship levy". Nonsensical is exactly the right word in relation to this particular policy, if more polite than that used by some of our members. The policy is a classic example of robbing Peter to pay Paul.

The bad

There are plenty of other good intentions in the manifesto, but let’s move on to the bad. In a previously trailed policy, Labour says it will “aid attainment” by introducing free school meals for all primary schoolchildren, paid for by removing the VAT exemption on private school fees.

This is feel-good stuff, but it falls at our third ASCL manifesto principle – policy based on evidence. We are not persuaded that the evidence supports the contention that universal free school meals will boost attainment. Indeed, neither is one of the authors whose study was cited by Labour when it announced its policy. This is an expensive policy and not the right spending priority. Targeted breakfast provision is likely to have a much greater impact.

More than that, the pledge to remove the VAT exemption on private school fees smacks of old-fashioned class warfare. The likely result is disruption to the education of children whose parents can no longer afford the fees, the closure of some smaller private schools and increased costs on the state.

Labour’s opposition to the introduction of baseline assessments for Reception-age children will be popular among some, but it would be helpful to be able to chart the progress of children across their whole school career, and it would better recognise the work of schools in these crucial early years. These assessments should certainly be non-intrusive and appropriate to the age of the children concerned, but there is surely merit in such a system.

And the woolly 

Now from the good and the bad to the woolly.

Labour’s pledge to “invest in measures to close the attainment gap between children from different backgrounds” is well-intentioned but woefully vague. What are these measures? Everybody would like to know, because closing the attainment gap has occupied our minds for our entire teaching careers, and has been the subject of numerous policies from various governments.

Of course, party manifestoes are inevitably broad-brush approaches, and this one has been put together under the pressure of a snap general election – but such bold promises need a bit more detail.

Finally, there are the missing bits. ASCL would like to see a commitment from all parties to put an end to scattergun reforms by ensuring that education policy is based on evidence. We would like to a see a commitment to curriculum stability, with no further reforms for the duration of the next Parliament. And we want the next government to develop, with the profession, a long-term shared vision for education.

None of these have any cost. But they would signal a party that genuinely believes that education can be improved – by doing the right things rather than a lot of things.

Geoff Barton is the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton. For more information, read ASCL’s 2017 General Election Manifesto

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