Guardian articles Mar 31 2014

Labour needs a triple shot

Over the past ten years I have got used to various ups and downs in my relationship with the Labour Party over its education policy. I have been a member since I was 16, worked for the last government and even thought of standing for Parliament at one stage.

So much of the party’s record in government should be celebrated. The investment in schools, teaching, leadership and early years always stand out. Too much prescription at times maybe and the benefits of full-blown marketisation, at the expense of good local collegiate public services, were always overstated in my view. But a lot was done, often overlooked by people too young to remember what the late 80s and early 90s were like.

But since 2010 the party’s position on schools has been underwhelming. Courageous stances have been made on other issues, but in this area Labour has resembled an anaemic patient crying out for a triple shot of vision, courage and clarity, deficiencies that are illuminated by the education Secretary’s conspicuous style.

Whatever you may think of Michael Gove’s vision for last century education set in a modern free market setting, he knows how to do decisive action and narrative. Yet as his reputation starts to unravel –one of his admirers and former journalistic colleagues recently had to warn that he was now alienating friends as well as enemies – it seems to barely dent his confidence, or boost Labour’s.

Why is this? At a profound level, Labour faces a fork in the road. Does it go back to the diversity and choice orthodoxy of the last 25 years?  It is SO last century but some still cling to it. Or does it move forward and do something different; like focusing on high quality local schools that embrace differing ethos’ but work in collaborative partnerships?

And how does it deal with the weariness of everyone from teachers to parents, struggling to keep up with the latest speech or initiative. Shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt was right to say that it is untenable for Labour to throw all the balls in the air again, But that doesn’t excuse the lack of a clear sense of where Labour would like to get to eventually.

The public and professionals are smart enough to recognise, if they have it clearly explained, that managing large-scale change is a complex and delicate task. Progress towards a more ambitious goal may only be incremental at first. Against the whirlwind of the last five years, such honesty may even be refreshing and reap electoral rewards.

There are signs that Labour’s slumbering policymaking process, is rumbling into life. David Blunkett’s “middle tier” review is about to be published and urgently needed. The Gove legacy won’t be, as Hunt recently suggested, a successful continuation of what Labour started. It will be a fragmented mish mash of different types of schools, with different funding and accountability arrangements and a massive accrual of power to the centre, which is dangerous for both quality and equality.

Bringing some order to this mess won’t be easy but if Blunkett can outline how autonomy and consistent regulation might coexist, so that school “type” ceases to matter and the power to plan places, broker school improvement and ensure fairness lie at a local level rather than in Whitehall, it will be a job well done

Meanwhile the taskforce commissioned by Labour to look at 14-19 education has published its final report. Chaired by the Institute of Education’s Chris Husbands, its ideas are encouraging.

The proposal for a “national baccalaureate”, to include academic and vocational qualifications, personal skills and extended projects, draws directly on the work of Tom Sherrington and the Head Teachers’ Roundtable, first featured on these pages.

It buries the unappealing idea of a stand alone “Tech Bacc”, suggests strong local accountability for careers advice and destinations and explicitly recognises the importance of the arts, culture and enrichment to young peoples lives.

It is a generous vision of what constitutes a broad, balanced education and exposes at a stroke the flimsy and insubstantial nature of Gove’s “E Bacc” . It is also I believe, the sort of vision for secondary education most parents want (and indeed pay for in the private sector). It would be tragic if, ten years after the unceremonious ditching of Mike Tomlinson’s equally thoughtful proposals, it isn’t adopted as firm policy.

But even so , these pieces need to be knitted together in a coherent whole and sold with confidence. The public is ready to hear something different, and I am ready to relinquish my role as the critical friend.

This article first appeared in the Guardian on March 11 2014





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