Labour mustn't throw out the baby with the bath water

There are a lot of good things going on in our education system. Labour should be wary of introducing change for change's sake, says Geoff Barton

Tipped-over rubbish bin full of money

We’re starting to get a clearer picture of what education might look like under Labour. The shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, set out some broad outlines in her speech on Sunday to the party’s conference in Brighton. Here’s what we learned:

  • A rebranded social-justice commission would be charged with the task of “integrating” private schools.
  • Labour’s first budget would close the “tax loopholes” used by “elite private schools” and use that money to “improve the lives of all children”.
  • Labour would deliver a renewed Sure Start programme, inevitably called Sure Start Plus.
  • There would be free nursery education for all two- to four-year-olds “led by professionals, designed to develop the whole child”.
  • Labour will end tuition fees in universities and also in further and adult education, “so that lifelong learning is available for all”.
  • Ofsted will be scrapped and replaced with a new, independent body, which will “ensure every provider from nursery to college delivers the education that will be the right of every citizen”.
  • A clear price cap will be set on school uniforms, to “stop the scandal of children priced out of school”.

Some good ideas

Leaving aside the fact that this is a very expensive set of policies, there are some good ideas here, particularly the emphasis on improving support for families and offering access to high-quality nursery education.

We know that children who miss out on the crucial learning in early life that equips them with a good vocabulary and language skills then start school behind, and often do not make up that gap in subsequent years. Improving early education is key to improving their prospects, and it’s good to see that placed centre stage in Labour’s policy.

The commitment to a fairer inspection system is also welcome, though the actual plan to create a two-phase system, with local authorities doing a “health check” and a new inspectorate then doing in-depth inspections where necessary, seems unnecessarily complicated and bureaucratic.

Certainly, however, the intention of no longer reducing the complexities of a school or college to a one-word graded judgement is laudable. The problem with branding a school “inadequate” is that it actually makes it more difficult to secure improvement, because teachers and families are deterred from considering the school.

If we want to break cycles of underperformance, we have to be smarter than that.

Setting a price cap on school uniforms arises from recent claims that some schools are setting uniform policies that are excessively expensive. The vast majority of schools are of course conscious of the need to balance the benefits of having a uniform with the importance of ensuring that it is affordable. But the existing guidance on uniforms is vague, and a stronger steer would be helpful and appreciated by parents.

And then there is the thorny issue of private schools.

Euphemism for abolition

Interestingly, the idea of “integration” – which sounds like a euphemism for abolition – would become the responsibility of the social-justice commission, while Labour would focus on tax measures in its first Budget. 

Presumably, this means imposing VAT on school fees, and possibly scrapping the discount on business rates. It is a policy that will be popular with many but, as we have pointed out recently, does have some serious consequences. It would result in the closure of small private schools, disrupting the students and staff affected, shifting the cost of their education on to the state (thus wiping out any tax “gain”), and putting pressure on places in local state schools.

It is hard to see exactly what this would achieve.

Also, interestingly, we didn’t have a repeat this year of the academy-bashing rhetoric of Angela Rayner’s speech in 2018, when she pledged to end immediately “the Tories’ academy and free-school programmes”. We have never been entirely clear whether that meant dismantling existing trusts, or simply halting further conversions. Either course is problematic, the first because it would involve enormous structural change, the second because academisation may be an attractive option in some cases.

And, given that more of half the nation’s children are educated in academies, it would be a huge and costly distraction.

National Education Service

Underpinning all of this is the notion of a new National Education Service: a cradle-to-grave system covering early years to adult education.

It is noble, well-intentioned stuff, if a bit vague. That is as might be expected at this stage of the game, however, especially as specific policies require a great deal of painstaking development.

What we would urge Labour in general though, is to avoid change for the sake of change.

There are a lot of good things going on in our education system. School leaders have stepped forward in many areas to lead trusts because they believe in the power of education to transform lives. They know that bringing a school into a trust is one way of creating opportunities and raising standards for some schools that had been written off as unsalvageable.

Many of these leaders are doing superb, principled and relentlessly tough work to improve educational outcomes despite the wretched reality of underfunding and teacher shortages.

The much-criticised Ofsted has introduced a new inspection system which puts a greater focus on the stuff of learning: the curriculum and the quality of education. We need to be careful not to jettison something that might actually be a good thing, without at least giving it a chance.

The real trick of government

Let’s be careful also not to get bogged down in distractions such as an ideological war waged on private schools, which would be time-consuming, costly and damaging. 

With any party vying for government, the temptation to be a new broom with eye-catching policies is always going to be high.

But the real trick of good government is to improve upon the best of what already exists. And, as I’ve said before, our education system is already far better than we let the public – and ourselves – realise.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets as @RealGeoffBarton

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