What would education look like under a Labour government? We were given an insight on Tuesday at a set-piece event in Blackpool where the party laid out its plans for its much-heralded National Education Service.
The headline announcement was a big, bold £3 billion commitment to lifelong learning that includes a plan to give every adult a free entitlement to six years of study for qualifications at levels 4-6.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn described it “as an escalator running alongside you throughout life that you can get on and off whenever you want.”
Lifelong learning expansion
Then shadow education secretary Angela Rayner set out the economic and social imperative, saying:
“Over a million jobs have been identified as being at risk of automation and responding to the climate crisis requires a fundamental change to our economy. It will be impossible to respond to these challenges without the radical expansion of lifelong learning that we are proposing.”
We often call for transformative policies from our politicians, so let’s give credit where it’s due. Here is the genuine article: a policy that looks at the shape of things to come and offers a solution that is socially just and economically astute.
It is not without its challenges. It would require careful planning to ensure provision matched need, as well as many more teachers with specialist skills and knowledge, more facilities and teaching spaces. But none of this is insurmountable and we have the benefit of colleges and universities that already possess the experience and expertise upon which this provision could be built.
There was plenty more to cheer.
Labour’s commitment to provide 30 hours of free childcare for all two- to four-year-olds and to open 1,000 new Sure Start centres is a recognition of the crucial role of early years support. All too often, children fall behind their peers right at the start of their lives, and the gap is never made up. If we could do more to help them at this developmental stage we could make real inroads into improving their lives and creating a more socially just society.
And the party’s pledge to bring back the education maintenance allowance for sixth-form students and university maintenance grants are also proposals we warmly welcome, as they are so important in terms of supporting educational access for those who face the greatest challenges.
As you might expect, however, now come the bits that were perhaps not quite so positive or which at least require further explanation.
Overall, Labour seemed largely to be at pains to avoid the more negative policy statements that we have seen in the recent past and are based around scrapping stuff and abolishing things. However, a few slipped through.
Scrapping KS1 and KS2 Sats
First, there is the plan to scrap Sats for key stage 1 and key stage 2. This isn’t new, of course. It was announced by Mr Corbyn earlier this year alongside a vague commitment to replace Sats with a “more flexible and practical” primary assessment system. There is no question that Sats have to be reformed. It is among the calls that we make in our general election manifesto. But we need to know at least a little bit more about what Labour has in mind to replace them.
Second, there is a glancing reference in Mr Corbyn’s speech to Labour’s plan to “end the divisive academy and free schools programme." Again, this isn’t the first time the party has said something similar, and we have never been entirely sure what this means.
Is Labour’s intention to leave in place existing academies and free schools and prevent any more from happening? Or is it to dismantle the entire system and return all schools to local authority control with all the disruption this would entail?
Another recommendation in the ASCL manifesto is that politicians really must resist the urge to embark on yet more costly and distracting structural reform. We think it would be much more productive if they instead focused on encouraging collaboration between schools of all types. Hopefully, Labour will spell out exactly what it means when it publishes its own manifesto.
Tax on private schools and free school meals
And then there was Mr Corbyn’s line about providing free school meals for every primary school child, accompanied by the pledge that “we’ll put VAT on private school fees to pay for it".
There will be many advocates of the policy on free school meals for primary pupils, but however strongly you may feel that it is a good thing, it is surely slightly odd to connect it to taxing private schools as though this is some sort of binary choice.
As we have pointed out before, the risk of imposing taxes on private schools is that many are very small – half have fewer than 300 pupils – and may well simply end up closing, with the consequent disruption to pupils and their likely displacement to state schools for which the taxpayer would then have to pick up the tab.
Of course, it may be that there was an element of playing to the gallery here – chucking in a bit of red meat for the faithful. But, as I’ve written before, this is a policy that may have significantly damaging unintended consequences.
Overall, however, the announcements on Tuesday were notable for the emphasis placed on proposals that sought to set an agenda on education in a positive manner.
So where do they leave us?
There is no doubt that taken together this is an expensive set of policies, and Labour will clearly have to set out how it is going to pay for them all. But that is an argument for another day.
And so too is the Conservatives’ plans for education. We look forward to seeing whether there are some new ideas, some new vision, or has the era of Conservative reform come to an end?