‘Labour must regain the plot on education – and here’s how’

John Bangs, a consultant to Education International and former NUT senior official, looks at how the new opposition line-up could take the battle to the Conservatives over schools

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Labour’s failure to use its five years of opposition to develop a coherent alternative to the government’s education reforms is illustrated by a recent comment from Ed Miliband’s former pollster. Describing free schools as a petty, third-tier issue – one that’s unlikely to grab the electorate’s attention – he argued that labour’s leadership candidates should have prioritised growth, spending, national identity and immigration.

In conflating free schools with education, he unwittingly demonstrated just how narrow the terms of Labour’s debate on education have become – and how far education as a party priority has fallen.

The fog of Labour’s leadership war has obscured one obvious fact: the new front bench has the chance to recast Labour’s education policies as a first-order issue on which the future of the country depends. This was understood by the incoming 1997 Labour government. It is now understood by increasing numbers of countries globally, particularly the most successful.

In short Labour – especially its new shadow education secretary Lucy Powell – has a fresh chance to set the schools agenda. How can it do this?

The party should start by reassessing Michael Gove’s reforms. His priority was to deconstruct the education system as a way of minimising state involvement. Privatisation was a fringe benefit. To do this, he gave heads as much power as they wanted in exchange for full support for his reforms. Ofsted would be the only glue that would bind the education system together.

Roving the global education landscape to gather evidence for his reforms, he mercilessly cherry picked examples, particularly from OECD research, and used them out of context to ideologically disarm the opposition.

The reforms’ effects go far beyond the issue of academies and free schools. As a functioning system, England’s education service is now badly damaged. England is only just in the top 30 most successful education systems. The teaching profession is fractured as a national entity. Heads’ anxieties about punitive inspections drive the way in which schools are run. There is no coherent national approach to teachers’ careers and professional development, and indeed, to raising teachers’ self-efficacy – policies deemed vital by the OECD.

Many parents lack confidence that their children will get school places or that the admissions system is fair. Shortages of school places are beginning to be matched by teacher and headteacher shortages. The school planning system is chaotic. Confidence in the examination system has been eroded and swathes of the curriculum are endangered with the introduction of EBacc.

This might seem like an overly bleak assessment. After all, schools remain thriving centres of their communities and teachers’ commitment remains high. Yet schools are successful despite, not because of, the government’s reforms.

It rests with Labour as the official opposition to change the narrative. But how?

  • To start with, Labour should say that it would create a functioning and successful public education system, firmly based on the principles of equity, developed by learning from this country’s and other countries’ successes.
  • In supporting the principle of a decentralised education system, it should argue that there are key policies that cannot be left to schools; for example, policies affecting the recruitment, retention and development of teachers and which enable governments to tackle disadvantage.
  • It should commit itself to sorting out the governance and planning of education. In a highly decentralised system, there could be a common system of school boards with responsibility for supporting schools.
  • Labour should be unequivocal that reforms cannot be successful without the active engagement of teachers and parents. Teacher policy should be agreed in partnership with teachers and their unions. While the College of Teachers has potential, it could explore some of the developments in the US including the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and initiatives on teacher leadership.
  • England’s system of evaluation should be reformed. It damages innovation and creativity, and demoralises rather than encourages. Labour could do worse than look at the proposals in the OECD’s recent review of assessment and evaluation.
  • Labour should commit to a review of post-14 education based on the 2005 Tomlinson report and go for an agreed timeline.
  • In the UK, a Council of Education Ministers could be proposed, similar to those in Canada and Germany. It is vital that countries learn from each other, not least England.

These are just some ideas based on international evidence. They are not partisan. The effectiveness of the education system in England is not being interrogated in democratic debate. That is bad for democracy, as well as education. Labour has a chance to put that right.

John Bangs was writing in a personal capacity

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