Policy Apr 23 2013

Some thoughts on Labour and schools policy

The Observer newspaper carried a couple of  articles at the weekend about an alleged mid-term wobble  for Labour. This seemed to be largely based on a slight drop in the opinion polls, a few attacks from  ageing Blairites and George Osborne’s intervention in the welfare debate using the horrific story of the Derby benefit claimant who set fire to his house and children. In a leader column the paper also conceded the strengths in Ed Miliband’s leadership with which I would agree . He has held the party together in opposition ( often not the case in Labour history), he has shown courage and caught the public mood on some key issues and he has proved resilient, ignoring the vicious and at times silly personal criticism of his appearance, voice etc. Would Churchill be electable today I wonder, now that politics appears to have become a beauty contest as much as about making serious changes to the way the country is run?

And there are signs that the party is starting to develop some interesting ideas about the economy, business, housing and welfare. But the Observer is particularly scathing in its assessment of the Labour education policy, saying:

“What Labour really thinks about Michael Gove’s education reforms is a mystery. Stephen Twigg, the shadow education secretary, has said that he won’t close successful free schools and academies, but he will face pressure before the election to say if he would open new ones. Twigg’s position will be that Gove’s free school project is irrelevant and dangerous at a time when there is a serious shortfall in primary school places. But Labour still lacks conviction on school policies.”

I am not sure why the points raised in this quote are so difficult for the party to address. There seems to be a widespread recognition that the rapid fragmentation of the school system under Michael Gove could impede further school improvement, lead to unfairness in admissions and funding  and fail to provide school places in the areas where they are needed. Moreover addressing these points may be easier than the challenge of reforming the coalition’s proposed curriculum and qualifications changes, which are also causing widespread concern. Further changes to what is taught and how it is assessed would need to be done carefully without loading further turmoil on an already weary and demoralised profession, as I wrote here for the Fabian Society earlier this year.

So here are a couple of suggestions.

  1. The party makes clear that it will undertake widespread consultation with professionals about the curriculum and qualifications, building on the work of groups like the Headteachers’ Roundtable , and the coalition being brought together by teacher Debra Kidd with her petition “Calling all Teachers”. It will not rush into any further changes without seeking consensus.
  2. Then it explains it will not be closing down any schools. Instead it would gradually move to a position where ALL schools, whether maintained, academy, community , trust, foundation or voluntary aided are bound by the same regulatory framework when it comes to funding, curriculum,  admissions, SEN, exclusions and pay.
  3. No more academies or free schools would be opened. Instead a community or co-operative trust school model would be favoured – semi autonomous but maintained , funded through the local authority and part of the local family of schools, rather like the current foundation or voluntary aided school model. AGAIN the structure should be largely irrelevant as all schools will have the same freedoms and obligations.
  4. Responsibility for planning places and holding schools to account would return to the local authority, unless there is a very good reason why they are not competent to do it. Today’s PAC report about the shambolic, poorly regulated funding of academies by the DFE only serves to illustrate again that central government is not suitable or equipped to manage thousands of schools. If local authorities are not good enough, make them better and encourage more federations and collaboration between schools in the local area to strengthen improvement and high quality teaching.

Both Ofsted reporting and analysis of the DFE data increasingly show that there is no discernible “academy” ( or indeed “free school”) effect. It is embarrassing for Labour to have started this unnecessary experiment but equally it would be justifiable to say that the Tory/Lib Dem coalition has developed the concept, which in its day had a very different core purpose, in a reckless and irresponsible manner.  Labour has no alternative  but to restore some order and rigour to both funding and quality and curtail what could be a Trojan horse for the rapid introduction of for profit schools after the next election.

Time is getting tight and schools, parents and governors rightly want some idea of the general tenor of Labour’s proposals. None of this will frighten the horses too much as it is a logical response to the muddle Gove will bequeath.


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