Has Labour the courage to commit to education?

Henry Stewart's picture
There is much to applaud in Labour's education manifesto. They will reduce class sizes for 5, 6, 7 yr olds by "ending the wasteful Free Schools programme". There is a real focus on early years, recognising this is where the gap appears for the disadvantaged, and on restoring Sure Start. There is a commitment to restoring local oversight and to encouraging collaboration rather than competition. (I wrote here about how collaboration or competition is a clear difference between the parties.)

There is a focus on a "gold standard" vocational qualification and a genuine commitment to the 50% that Labour believes would prefer a vocational to an academic pathway. And there is recognition that "recent policy changes have neglected broader skills, character and creativity in education."

Labour's funding commitment is to "protect the entire education budget in real terms, from the early years through to post-16 education and skills". The Conservative commitment is to maintain per-pupil spending, but only in cash terms and only for ages 5 to 16.

Maintain spending in real per-pupil terms or only real terms?

So Labour has committed to maintain school spending in real terms, but not per pupil. The Conservatives have committed to maintain per-pupil spending but not increase it in line with inflation. I wrote here that both promises actually amount to roughly the same level of spending and both represent a cut, compared to maintaining the budget in real per-pupil terms, in the annual budget of over £4 billion by the end of the next Parliament. (Sam Friedman has pointed out that, if you include planned increases in school staff pension and NI costs, this rises to £5 billion.)

Let us be clear on what that means. A school that currently has a full roll of students will on average, under the promises given by Labour or Conservatives, face a 10% cut in funding by 2020.

I do not believe that, if voters understood this, they would welcome it. I do not believe most people would vote for this. Such a massive cut in education spending is only necessary if you accept the logic of austerity economics. It is only needed if you reject the theories of John Maynard Keynes - and many other prominent economists - and believe that the only way to improve the economy is to cut spending.

An opportunity for a clear and popular difference from the Tories

However Labour is vague on this issue. While they appear never to have made a commitment to maintain real per-pupil spending, they have also never actually said they wouldn't. There is an opportunity here for Labour to mark a real difference between themselves and the Tories.

The Labour approach to the deficit is, of course, different to that of the Conservatives. Ed Balls has made clear that Labour only plan to balance the budget in current spending terms. They believe it is reasonable to borrow for investment, for capital spending. A recent House of Commons paper reveals that, while capital spending in education was cut by 29% in the first three years of the coalition, it still stood at £6.8 billion in 2013/14.

Labour can therefore, within its current plans, commit to spending £6.8 billion more on education than the Conservatives. They could decide to state "Labour's approach to government spending means we can commit to maintain real per-pupil education spending. A vote for Conservatives means a vote for a £5 billion cut, a reduction in 10% in real per-pupil funding for schools."

Does Labour have the courage?

Does Labour, emboldened by the positive response its non-dom policy, have the courage to make this commitment? A commitment to maintain the level of educational spend, to keep that investment in our young people's future, can be made within Labour's economic plans. It is surely a popular proposal and - above all - it is surely the right thing to do.

Steve Richards this week helpfully suggested a wording for Labour to emphasise the difference between the parties: “We will address the deficit without damaging the economy. The Conservatives will address the deficit even if it damages the economy.”

Exactly the same could be said on education: "We will address the deficit without damaging education. The Conservatives will address the deficit even if it damages education, and their promise only to maintain per-pupil spend in cash terms effectively means a 10% cut by 2020."

I wait with interest to see if we have a real alternative to vote for on education spending.
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Margaret Tulloch's picture
Fri, 10/04/2015 - 09:49

I would have liked a bit more courage on ending selection at 11 too!

Andy V's picture
Fri, 10/04/2015 - 10:24

Eloquently and eruditely put Henry, thank you.

From TH's most recent sallies into the fray quite frankly I fear for education under Labour as much as under the Conservatives. His comments on the R4 Today programme yesterday where examples absolute classic politico-journalistic vacuity. Indeed, following the statements from Labour since before Christmas to yesterday I simply cannot see any substantial difference between them and the Conservatives. Rather I here repeated messages that little will change.

All the main political parties are a busted flush on education. The Greens may have some mileage but are unlikely to be an effective player for several general elections to come.

Andy V's picture
Fri, 10/04/2015 - 12:23

* Oophs! Not "where" but 'were' examples of'

mistemina's picture
Fri, 10/04/2015 - 12:42

With thanks to Margaret for highlighting Selection and Fiona miller for her sound bite on this on National TV.
We in Bucks are suffering very badly from being a fully Selective County. Our LA figures analysis has been proven the New 11+ is worse than the old one, it has deepened elitism and inequality (along wealth lines, you will not be surprised). Another inequality impact is on our Bucks Secondary Moderns; they have to carry an unfair and unequal burden, having the majority of demotivated children and virtually all the traditional cohort that underachieve.

Politics & Selection Update: Tristrum Hunt (a product of Independent School) and all Bucks Tories (long-time Bucks rulers) appear to carry the conviction that opposing selection is a vote loser.

And yet!
The valiant local Wycombe Labour Party has clearly and unequivocally stated they oppose Selection. And so has the Wycombe Prospective Parliamentary Candidate, Mr David Williams.
This does not appear to have damaged Mr Williams prospects, in fact quite the opposite! http://www.bucksfreepress.co.uk/news/12869389.Labour_wins_largest_share_...

Andy V's picture
Fri, 10/04/2015 - 13:05

Good luck to Mr Williams. It will interesting to see how it plays out on 7 May but even if successful I fear it will not lead to a change in Labour central or, and regrettably, in Wycombe.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 10/04/2015 - 13:26

I would like Labour to commit to moving towards graduation at 18 via multiple routes. Labour could avoid claims they were piling more changes on teachers and pupils by incorporating existing exams (GCSEs, iGCSEs, vocational exams, ModBac, ASDAN etc) into a framework which:

1 Scrapped the high-stakes nature of exams taken at 16+.
2 Allowed all pupils to follow a broad, balanced curriculum up to 16 (no dropping, say, history at age 14) but would only be expected to take nationally set and externally marked exams in English, Maths, a science and no more than 2 other subjects. This is in line with other countries which require exams at 16+.
3 Allowed the results of these exams together with teacher assessment, coursework and pupil inclination to decide post 16 progression.
4 Allowed the 16+ results to count towards final graduation. They should be supplemented by a mixture of further exams (academy and/or vocational), extended coursework and other activities such as work experience, Young Enterprise, Duke of Edinburgh Award, sports, drama, taking part in an art or design exhibition, voluntary work, MOOC courses, OU modules...
5 Allowed each young person to develop his/her own achievement profile by linking all the above in a unique on-line portfolio (similar to the one used by the OU to list students' achievement). This could be accessed by pupils but it would be the responsibility of an agency similar to an exam board to ensure pupils' accredited achievements are in the portfolio.

And scrap SATs - they have no educational value.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 14/04/2015 - 15:48

Janet - I agree with you.

Unfortunately Labour is still clinging to the folly of creating two sorts of school students at the end of Y9 - academic and vocational. This kind of educational apartheid is damaging to students who find themselves in either camp. The world of business frequently expresses the same idea, along with the Conservative Party. State funded vocational business-led 14+Academies have already been created.

I agree with scrapping high stakes 16+ exams, but who says they have to be high stakes?

16 is not just the best minimum age for vocational specialisation, it needs to be defended as the minimum age before vocational training is allowed to replace education. Every young person should have a right to equal access to developmental education designed primarily for the benefit of that young person in terms of choice, empowerment and general education.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 15/04/2015 - 09:01

Roger - establishing UTCs is an expensive policy. But it's flawed. A second UTC, Black Country UTC, is closing due to 'financial challenges'. Even the first UTC, JCB (capacity 728), which has been going since 2010, has just 433 students.

mistemina's picture
Fri, 10/04/2015 - 13:40

Your comments reflect the current mood in Bucks. In fact, the mood in Bucks for several generation.
I am hoping the latest campaign on Anti-Selection has an inbuilt resilience and mutual support network.
I say 'latest campaign on Anti-Selection', because virtually every generation has been compelled to campaign similarly, but fizzled out because there did not appear to be support. This time around we have a self-supporting Group and wonderful national support from the likes of CASE, CF, and here with LSN.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 10/04/2015 - 13:47

John - you may already be aware of this, but you can take heart from the fact that the pro-grammar lobby lost two recent debates about selection at 11 as Melissa Benn describes here.

Andy V's picture
Fri, 10/04/2015 - 14:05

I don't give a damn who moves education away from the saturated examination and benchmarking structure we have now, just as long as it happens and gets all party political ideologies out of the education policy agenda and process.

My position is such because I am not driven by party politics or party loyalties. Rather I am driven by what is best for education (including the economy and each youngster personal wellbeing and fulfilment as a whole person as opposed to factory produced widget following the factory owners narrow specifications).

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 11/04/2015 - 10:02

Andy - you're right. I, too, would like to see any party commit to moving towards graduation at 18 but the thread was confined to Labour policy. Can't see the Tories supporting my suggestions, though, and UKIP would probably want a return to the School Certificate 1946-51.

agov's picture
Sat, 11/04/2015 - 08:02

"under the promises given by Labour or Conservatives, face a 10% cut in funding by 2020"

Or up to 12% according to the IFS -


Henry Stewart's picture
Sat, 11/04/2015 - 10:25

Thanks for that, agov: a very useful link. Also confirms Labour and Conservative (and Liberals) spending promise is very similar. I remain hopeful that, at some point in the campaign, Labour will have the guts to promise more. Fingers crossed.

mistemina's picture
Sat, 11/04/2015 - 10:27

Janet, thank you for the link http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2015/03/winning-the-argument-on-gr... Very interesting to note that the Cambridge Students Union voted against Selection!

I am picking up signals that that support for Selection is fading. Even in conservative (small C) circles.
Please keep me informed.

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Tue, 14/04/2015 - 05:53

A simple commitment to enforcing effective catch up literacy and numeracy programmes at secondary school e/g highly qualified dedicated recovery teachers including dyslexia experts is the one thing that will get my vote. The provision for children with barriers to reading is an absolute disgrace nationally, The provision of unsustainable and temporary workarounds or justifying exemption is what predominates .

Paul Hopkins's picture
Wed, 29/04/2015 - 21:52

I was cheered by the recent comments of TH re: teacher education [https://www.tes.co.uk/news/school-news/breaking-news/labour-plans-tear-s... The McKinsley report (and many others) have indicated that the most important factor in school is the quality of the teachers (not the most important factors for success these are still societal and linked to poverty (or lack of it)).

And, the best teachers are not those that have the highest degrees (which has been the mantra of governments for a while - there is no significant evidence that a higher quality of degree on entry to training means a better teacher (and we will, for a moment, ignore the fact that many teachers train via an undergraduate route).

So, we need to invest time into proper teacher education which includes times for practice in the classroom yes but also time for pedagogical study, child development study, getting to grips with research etc... I have blogged on this at [http://paulltnt2013.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/the-future-of-teacher-supply.... and then in supporting and giving teachers on-going professional development (and valuing them) so that we do not have the 40-45% drop out rates within 5 years that we currently have.

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