Labour’s manifesto for education

a comment by Terry Wrigley

Teachers’ votes on Thursday will be influenced by various factors. Many will vote on social justice principles to remove the most vicious features of Austerity politics. In the absence of proportional representation, many people (in England at least) will vote Labour to remove a Conservative government.

There are strengths in Labour’s manifesto regarding improved benefits, the under 5s and the transition into work, but many crucial questions are avoided or fudged. It should be clear that electing a Labour government will not of itself remove the dead hand of the ‘accountability’ regime. Even if Labour can form a government after the elections (and the alternative is dire), the campaign to dismantle the punitive and damaging accountability regime and for a broader and more accessible curriculum will need to intensify. 

Neoliberal logic and the accountability machine

The foundational logic of Labour’s education policy remains the Blairite neoliberal assumption that education is the chief way a government can develop the economy and, conversely, that producing human capital is the prime purpose of schools. Both are clearly articulated in the introduction to the education manifesto. Social justice issues tend to be raised within that set of assumptions, i.e. because they are holding back the economy.

Data is deployed to stress variability of performance (between teachers, between geographical areas) so as to justify accountability mechanisms. This manifesto fails to tackle the punitive accountability regime – a toxic mix of Ofsted surveillance (and the widespread fear of it) and bullying by numbers. There is no recognition of Ofsted as a problem, simply an acknowledgement of “a role for peer review”; Ofsted is capable of turning even this into a disaster.

There is the flawed assumption that low-level disruption results from poor classroom management and inadequate initial training, not pupils’ alienation from the curriculum, performativity-driven schooling and so on.

The teaching profession

Staff turnover and loss is acknowledged but with little understanding of what is causing it. Staff development is often poor, but nothing here to suggest an understanding of why (eg LA education departments stripped to the bone, schools relying on commercial provision of variable quality). We learn that high-quality headteachers are essential in a “highly autonomous school system”, but what about developing a highly collaborative system, including rebuilding local authorities in order to provide more support to school development.

It is good to hear that “Labour will value and support the education workforce”, but the carrot and stick of the next sentence is all too familiar: “good performance is rewarded and underperformance and coasting are not tolerated”.

The issue of unqualified teachers is raised. This is an important line in the sand, but perhaps less significant in its overall impact on teaching quality than minimalist training routes, punitive accountability processes, excessive workload, and teacher demoralisation and loss.

Primary schools

The promise of smaller class sizes for 5-7 year olds is welcome, but how much will ending the Free Schools programme actually buy? We should recognise that in Finland children of this age are in kindergarten, with ratios of 1:7 and well qualified staff; compare that with promises for England of ‘no 6 year olds in classes over 30’.

Providing new primary schools is indeed a critical issue, but note the wording on p12: “good” local authorities (who decides?) are to compete with “established providers, parents, teachers and entrepreneurs” – which suggests Academies and Free Schools under another name.

There is no mention of how the new National Curriculum is damaging education, nor any proposal to stop this (p23). The manifesto leaves intact Gove’s legacy of a primary curriculum based on early cramming in maths, science and limited aspects of literacy. Will the primary curriculum continue to be framed by baseline, phonics and SPAG tests?

Further curriculum issues

There is a welcome call here for a wider view of educational purpose, but the discourse used distorts the issues. The document speaks of “character education” and “broader skills” rather than education for democratic citizenship or an environmental perspective, let alone peace education and racial equality? What about young people’s cultural engagement, or education for leisure and wellbeing, or parenthood? How will schools be encouraged to pursue these aims?

The manifesto appears to leave intact the narrowed down GCSEs (eg English without speaking), and the new grading system which will make most 16 year olds appear to have done badly. The “Technical Baccalaureate for 16-18” at least avoids narrowing the KS4 curriculum and dividing 14 year olds into academic and vocational tracks, but we need to be on our guard. It falls short of an intention to build a coherent and equal qualifications framework.

Moving forward

All these issues will have to be confronted after the election. Gove’s legacy is far too destructive to be left in place.

Tristram Hunt’s recent speech acknowledged the serious crisis in teacher supply resulting from a demoralised profession combined with the failure of the School Direct system to recruit new students. Teachers and their allies will need to drive the message home that England’s school system needs decisive action to prevent its collapse.

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