The Labour leadership election seems to either be in full swing, or grinding on, depending on your taste in these matters. The latest opinion polls
suggest the result may still be wide open. But will it make any difference to the party’s education policies?
In theory the candidates all come at different points on a political spectrum of left to right. At least that is how the media likes to play it. However when I went to interview them last month for the Guardian, I found they were surprisingly united on some of the bigger issues.
You can read the full interviews here
but to summarise briefly. Each candidate had “pet” issue – none of which I could disagree with. Andy Burnham, passionate about comprehensive education and the meaning of a comprehensive curriculum was perhaps the strongest in denouncing the “market” approach to schooling that has dominated the last 25 years. He talked about the party being too beguiled in the past by a mythical group of “middle England “ parents.
Yvette Cooper focused strongly on the meaning of child well-being, the need for good mental health, confidence and resilience as well as ability to pass exams. The two are not mutually exclusive, she said, and performance measures should reflect a broader vision of what a good education means. She also spoke about the strong wish of most parents to have a good local school for their children.
Liz Kendall would prioritise early years and the need to address inequalities that open up before children even start school – she would invest in early years rather than higher education. She also mentioned lifelong learning, teacher morale and the need to attract the best heads to the toughest schools. She seemed to have moderated her earlier support for free schools to saying that she wouldn’t close any, which was in fact the Labour Party policy at the last election anyway.
Jeremy Corbyn was the most traditional Labour – wanting all schools back in the LA family and an end to selection (the others were weak on this issue). He also talked about inclusion, special educational needs, the impact of housing policy on children’s chances and the need to invest in FE colleges as well as reinstate the Educational Maintenance Allowance.
What is there not to agree with? Very little. I certainly didn’t find them ideologically opposed on any of the big questions . Perhaps most encouraging was that all the candidates (virtually without prompting) were angry about the narrowing of the curriculum, the mandatory EBacc in all schools and the downgrading of creative, technical and vocational subjects. All talked of the need to restore a broad curriculum and more choice for pupils.
They also all acknowledged that the central control of schools by the DFE (helped along under the Labour years by the rolling out of the academies programme) has gone too far; that some sort of local oversight of schools is necessary beyond what the current government is offering - eight regional commissioners whose performance
is linked to the number of schools they convert to academy status.
So at least some dividing lines are now emerging between Labour and the Tories who seem to want to run everything from Westminster with the Secretary of State as a national school improvement officer, “autonomous” schools told exactly which subject pupils should study and academisation as the only option in a so-called “diverse” school system.
Am I sitting on the fence re: my own vote in this election? Probably. I consider myself a floating voter and am listening to the arguments made by all the candidates carefully. It is disappointing that only one has the courage to speak out about the continuing use of the 11 plus which acts as a constant barrier to the chances of poorer children in many parts of the country. But I guess that is something we will have to keep working on.
Labour’s chances of power look remote at the moment but if the successful candidate can follow through on developing a broader vision for education – what is taught and valued and how we measure success – while reinstating some sort of local democratic oversight and accountability for schools, we might have a real opposition again.