Labour must not shy away from tackling the failings in our education system
Joel Mullan reviews some of the insights emerging from the Young Fabians Education Network.
Education reform has a good claim to be listed one of the top achievements of the last Labour government. But since leaving office Labour has struggled to develop a clear, compelling alternative to the government’s agenda. At the last general election, according to Tristram Hunt, the man then responsible for Labour’s education policy as Shadow Secretary of State, the party “signally failed to use the potency of education policy to offer a compelling enough vision of a Labour Britain.”
In the days that followed the election, former Prospective Parliamentary Candidate and education expert Tony Breslin went even further, criticising Labour’s “unimaginative” technocratic approach and calling for long-promised 'great debate' on education and its purpose. Others, including me, have argued that Labour was too often in danger of being painted as defender of the status quo - surrendering the language of excellence and aspiration in education to the Conservatives.
18 months on it is clear that the imperative for Labour to get its education policy right is even greater. The results of the EU referendum result have exposed for all to see the consequences of large sections of our society feeling disengaged and ‘left behind’ by Westminster politics. Government’s failure to provide high quality public services in many of the areas which voted Leave – including equitable access to the best education – is part of the problem.
In the time between now and the next General Election, whenever that might be, the Shadow Education team should be searching now for compelling answers proposals to tackle the big challenges facing our education system.
The latest Annual Report from schools regulator Ofsted sets out many of these challenges starkly – highlighting strong regional disparities in access to high quality education. In the North of England and the Midlands more than a quarter of secondary schools “are still not good enough”; whilst attainment in these regions is below the national level on every major measure. We need a clear vision and plan on how to tackle these variations – so that EVERY child gets the high quality secondary education that they will need to succeed in life. Whilst Theresa May uses the promise of new grammar schools to curry favour with her backbenchers for party management reasons, Labour should take an evidence-led approach to school improvement. This must include, as Sophie Keenleyside argues below, tackling the crisis in the teaching profession, which has left many schools struggling to recruit the teachers they need, as huge numbers (1 in 10 during 2014/15) choose to leave to the profession.
We also need to continue to improve our vocational education and training system, which has yet to properly grapple with the new demands that will be placed on it as a result of globalisation. We need better alignment of technical education to the current and future skills needs of the economy – with young people offered high quality technical education that puts them on the first rung of the ladder of paths to well-paying and sustainable careers. Government must do all it can to keep skilled jobs in the UK as part of a robust industrial strategy, but it will also need to provide for earlier and better access to training for skilled workers who need to retrain as a result of redundancy.
For the last 18 months, since the General Election, the Young Fabians Education Network has hosted a series of events designed to bring together those working on the frontline of education - parents, teachers and other practitioners, and pupils themselves – with policymakers to explore these issues in more detail, and try to catalyse some new thinking. Below, we’ve set out insights from the two most recent events in this programme as food for thought.
The Education Network has looked to shine a spotlight on the reforms being undertaken by government – with the Shadow Minister for Young People joining us to dissect the government’s plans for apprenticeship reform, and Labour members of Education Select Committee joining us to discuss shortcomings in the government’s approach to school improvement. But crucially, we have also looked to provide a space for discussion of education issues that are not currently on policymakers agenda but perhaps should be. We’ve looked at the controversial issue of school admissions, asked what citizenship in schools should mean following the Trojan Horse scandal (as Issac Stanley explores), and looked at what the UK might learn from how education works overseas. However, we can only be as strong as the members involved – if you want to get involved in the work of the network going forward please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Joel Mullan is former Chair of the Education Network.
Improving the recruitment and retention of teachers - Sophie Keenleyside
Pupil numbers are increasing, whist the number of teachers in the profession is reducing. It’s a policy problem so well-known that at times it seems it has lost what it takes to compel us into action. Yet there are profound social, economic and, for Labour, political ramifications at stake if we fail to give this doorstep issue the attention it deserves. Outgoing Ofsted chief Michael Wilshaw even pinned the north/south divide in English secondary schools and the support for Brexit encouraged by such educational inequality on the problems of teacher recruitment and retention.
Previous policy focused heavily on recruitment with glossy advertising and ‘golden hellos’, but, as we saw at our May event, experts like Professor John Howson think resources are best spent on teacher retention by offering better support and professional development. Education reform can no longer be about school structures but reforming teaching to ensure teachers get the professional satisfaction they crave. Crucially, this would involve addressing teachers’ workload and giving them more professional autonomy. Labour could also look to develop a career accelerator on offer to all teaching staff, whatever their entry route into the profession, which would send teachers to parts of the country with an acute teacher shortage for a period in exchange for the support to propel them into senior teaching positions. Investment in the talented staff we have in education is what we need most of all.
Sophie Keenleyside is the Education Network’s Communications Officer.
Nothing in common? Beyond the impasse in the ‘British values’ debate - Issac Stanley
The background to our ‘Common Values, British Values?’ event was the increasing polarisation evident in media responses to such events as the ‘Trojan Horse’ Scandal and the government’s demand for the teaching of ‘Fundamental British Values’ in schools. ‘Unitists’ approve of the robust affirmation of ‘British values’ in education (and elsewhere), to which all should be forced to submit; ‘pluralists’ dismiss such efforts as jingoistic (or racist). While a range of perspectives were expressed at the event, some consensus emerged around the inadequacy of either of these extreme positions in addressing the real challenges facing students, teachers, and British society more widely.
In their different ways, our panellists – including Jon Cruddas MP, Jeremy Hayward of the UCL Institute of Education, Naved Siddiqi of New Horizons in British Islam, and Michaela Martin of Raine’s Foundation School, Tower Hamlets (along with a large group of sixth form students) – agreed that any attempt to force ‘Britishness’ on young minds through the education system was not only misguided but doomed to failure. Agreement also emerged, however, that failure to cultivate any sense of commonality or ‘common good’ among young people, or to provide an alternative to powerful ‘us and them’ narratives, would be just as dangerous. In the post-Brexit vote climate, where the ‘unitist-pluralist’ polarisation in the media is stronger than ever, the Shadow Education team would do well heed this insight rather than retreating into the comfort of received liberal wisdoms.
Issac Stanley is the Education Network’s Membership Officer.