There’s always a buzz of optimism about Brighton. Amid its quixotic mix of shabby and chic buildings, today the city is full of people wearing tell-tale Labour conference lanyards. Every other conversation seems to be about politics. There’s a palpable whiff of change in the air.
The hope this week is that we may start to get a sense of Labour’s unfurling education policy, with details fleshed out from that hastily concocted election manifesto back in April. And this morning, the Association of School and College Leaders hosted a fringe event with the Education Policy Institute in which a panel, including shadow education secretary Angela Rayner, discussed the future of Labour education policy.
What I sense from most people I talk to about education is that there’s an almost visceral longing for a new narrative, a new sense of ambition. Because as the top performing jurisdictions around the world look optimistically outwards, our system seems increasingly parochial, self-absorbed, narrow. We look inwards.
Our discourse about education rarely seems to get beyond accountability measures, phonics and a new GCSE grading system. Rarely does it move on to the bigger issues – such as the kind of skills, knowledge, attitudes and values our young people will need for a future dominated by automation and global interconnection.
Labour's education vision
So while the rest of the world deals with big stuff around creativity and learning, we fixate on little stuff – and continue to squeeze too much of the joy out of the classroom for pupils and teachers alike.
So I’m hoping that the implicit optimism of Brighton might translate into our first glimpse of Labour’s education vision this week.
Because vision is what we surely and sorely need.
Here are five things I think Angela Rayner should announce:
First, it’s time to stop the political handbrake-turns of policy. Too often – by which I mean for decades – education has fallen victim to the personal fads of the ministers who gain office.
It’s time for politicians to do something bold – to learn from evidence, from the UK and overseas, in order to establish a shared long-term vision for education, one which creates a national mission for the next ten years or more.
That means a consensus across education and business about the kind of young people our country needs and the kind of talents we will help them proudly to develop.
Second, we then need stability – a guarantee of no more reform of curriculum and qualifications. Let’s instead allow teachers to teach, without the distraction of more exam specifications to absorb and more schemes of work to produce.
Third, we need more good graduates to choose to teach and then to stay in the classroom.
We, therefore, need a national career strategy for teachers that rewards their knowledge and expertise, recognises commitment such as exam marking, attendance at teach-meets and membership of subject associations. And thus provides a career trajectory that is classroom-based rather than expecting talented teachers to be promoted out of the classroom via the management ladder.
Fourth, we need to focus on the right group of children. Those gaining their GCSE grade 7s and above will generally move on to academic pathways which will give them opportunities in higher education and then a tantalising range of career choices. It’s the pupils at the other end of the performance spectrum who need us the most – with a relentless focus on building their literacy skills, through rich and varied discussion, reading and writing and building a strong capacity for resilient learning.
We urgently need a national mindset that is determined to get each pupil to a standard pass grade rather than cutting them adrift after 11 years of compulsory education with a grade that society doesn’t value. They deserve better from us.
Fifth, and related to that, it’s time finally to put greater focus on vocational education, to put it on an equal footing with the academic curriculum. It’s time to end the snobbery. The test of any new vocational course should be that it opens doors rather than narrowing opportunities, that it is attractive to the academically most gifted pupil, rather than being seen as a cul-de-sac for underperformers, that it can lead, like A levels, to university and top careers as well as into necessary trades.
Bigger, urgent needs
There’s much more to do. But leadership is about choosing what to focus on, about deciding what to leave behind for now. That’s why I hope Labour won’t get absorbed by structural issues around the academy programme or state-independent school status. There are bigger, more urgent needs.
More importantly, there are far too many children, often from disadvantaged backgrounds, who need our renewed ambition and a collective cross-party determination that finally, all these years on, all young people can enjoy the kind of life-enhancing education that too often remains the preserve of the fortunate few.
Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton