The Labour leadership and schools

Fiona Millar's picture
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.
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mistemina's picture
Thu, 23/07/2015 - 05:38

Helpful. Thanks Fiona.

agov's picture
Thu, 23/07/2015 - 11:10

"...the successful candidate ...we might have a real opposition again."

Good luck with that.

Of course, there is the SNP.

mistemina's picture
Thu, 23/07/2015 - 12:53

the SNP may make easier bed fellows with their progressive education policies.

Nigel Ford's picture
Fri, 24/07/2015 - 07:39

I get a bit fed up with the way Corbyn is pilloried in the press for splitting with his wife over her determination to send their son to a grammar school overriding his wishes for him to attend a "failing" Islington comp, as if it's crime of the century. Blair didn't receive nearly enough stick for sending his son to a Grant Maintaned "comprehensive" school miles away from his Islington home, when under his leadership it was Labour policy to abolish GM status, and they were banging on about "community values" (like supporting your local schools).

Richard Hatcher's picture
Fri, 24/07/2015 - 12:19

Fiona says ‘I certainly didn’t find them ideologically opposed on any of the big questions’. But on a number of key issues there is a fundamental division between Jeremy Corbyn, who marks out a radical change of direction from current Labour policy, and the other three candidates, who by and large accept the architecture of the Tory school system.

Take what should be a defining issue of Labour policy: the abolition of selective schools. Corbyn is unequivocal: ‘I would want all grammars to become comprehensives and to end the 11-plus where it still exists.’ Cooper and Kendall think existing grammar schools should remain. Burnham wants to leave it to local parental ballots to decide.

Or another pillar of Tory policy, academies and free schools. Again, Corbyn is unequivocally opposed. ‘I am not a supporter of the principle of free schools and academies, and I would want to bring them all back into the local authority orbit.’ Burnham and Cooper avoid the issue entirely. Kendall says nothing about academies but retain ‘good’ free schools.

What about local democracy? Burnham, Cooper and Kendall all speak of a minimal level of local oversight or accountability, but it extends no further than school place planning, admissions, standards and exclusions. Only Corbyn supports the restoration of a local authority system, including integrating academies and free schools.

However, Cooper is actually in favour of education being handed over to the new Combined Authorities. This means even less local accountability than there is now, because while local authorities’ role in education is accountable to elected local government through the local council, there is no equivalent at Combined Authority level. So in Greater Manchester, for example, its role in education would be carried out by just eleven people – the ten council leaders and the directly elected mayor – with no Greater Manchester elected assembly to hold them to account.

Two key instruments of Tory control, which dominate teachers’ lives, are testing and Ofsted, so it is vital that Labour has a clear alternative policy. Corbyn stands for fewer tests and says bluntly ‘Reform or refound Ofsted.’ In contrast the other three candidates all duck the issue.

Finally, Corbyn is the only one to comment on teachers’ pay and conditions: a pay rise for teachers and restoration of the national pay system.

There is general agreement that a Labour government should reject the Tories’ narrow curriculum and should value ‘vocational’ subjects. But on these other key issues one candidate, Jeremy Corbyn, stands out for his concrete policies. They are what the majority of teachers want, they would be electorally popular and they are entirely practical. All it would take is political will. The other three candidates by and large accept the framework of the school system that Gove created. Nor is there any indication that they would support teachers, parents and local communities who will be actively campaigning against Tory policies over the next five years, not just waiting hopefully for the next general election, unlike Jeremy Corbyn who has a consistent track record of support for active campaigns on education and other issues.

mistemina's picture
Fri, 24/07/2015 - 14:19

Narrowing it down to my locality (Bucks), nothing but the Corbyn stance will enable the dismantling of the wretched Selection system.
The fully selective County of Bucks is controlled by Tories, the old Desperate, Lazy thinking Tory variety. They know the 11+ is unfair and unjust, thanks to the work of LEE, yet they have convinced themselves that even speaking against Selection is a vote loser.
We have no parental pressure because every parent naturally hopes their child will pass the 11+; despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Some of us are starting to view this as a corruption at several levels.

Peter Leyland's picture
Fri, 24/07/2015 - 15:03

Parents in Bucks need to be made more aware of the inequality caused by our selective system. By calling their MPs to account they will then provide
Reassure for change.

mistemina's picture
Mon, 27/07/2015 - 13:29

Hi Peter,
The local MP (you may already know) was always pro-grammars, he believes that is where his votes lie; recently he has lurched to the right without putting on the indicators (pre-elections), he has bought the full package plus the accessories, anti-EU, anti-gay marriage, etc.
Getting the message to parents is the real nut to crack. Anecdotally from the 'Doorsteps' and local newspaper opinion surveys are encouraging, but no overt stirring of revolution yet.
Must say, Local Wycombe Labour Party and their recent Parliamentary candidate have been true and loud in their anti-selection beliefs.

Peter Leyland's picture
Mon, 27/07/2015 - 13:42

Thanks John. Should read 'pressure for change'

mistemina's picture
Mon, 27/07/2015 - 13:56

Tks. Do you a link please?

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