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Labour’s education policy draft is woefully inadequate – here’s an alternative

Tristram Hunt 1The Labour party has made available eight draft policy documents for discussion and amendment. Once again, the procedures surrounding this process are confusing – but it is crucial that party branches exercise their rights. Constituency parties (CLPs) and affiliated organisations are restricted to submitting ten amendments in total, with no more than four on any one document, by 13th June 2014. Any CLP or affiliate finding these limitations too restrictive can, to some extent, get round the problem by proposing the deletion of sufficiently large sections of the original document for their substitute wording to contain what they want to change.

One affiliate has been advised that precise wording is not required – and a list of ideas for matters to include/exclude will do fine. So why were party units not told this in the first place? And why limit amendments so arbitrarily? A spreadsheet with main ideas and proposing organisations could easily be set up – for both compositing and establishing the main ideas in contention.

The icing on this amateurish cake is the news that a further fifteen documents on policy issues are to be submitted to Labour’s national executive (NEC) beyond the point when comment for the members is possible. We also have key reports to be delivered by, for example, David Blunkett, on the local organisation of education, which will arrive too late to be included in the deliberations of most of those trying to get amendments into their branches for eventual consideration by their CLP. The whole process is shambolic.

I have no idea of the status accorded to proposals submitted by anyone who feels like submitting them on the Your Britain website. However, I have been informed that all amendments will be put on that website. I will believe that when I see it and can only hope that it is done so in a manner that does not sap one’s will to live as one clicks repeatedly on the “more” button to see the the next lot of contributions. (Your Britain seems to be run by people who have never asked themselves what a typical user might want to find out and how accessing material can be made easy for them.) As democratic farces go this is quite a good one.

Despite all this, it is incumbent on those who think that any, or all of these documents, fall far short of what is required to turn this country away from neo-liberal solutions to set out what they see as viable alternatives.

I have previously pointed out what I consider to be the main failings of the draft on education policy. I have prepared some amendments to the education document which I offer not as something to be copied (although anyone is free to copy anything they find useful) but as a suggestion for the sort of ways in which the documents can be changed. My view is that the document is largely based on accepting the results of the Gove transformation of English schools along with the neo-liberal thinking on which that has been based.

I have proposed an alternative on schools and vocational education which I think provide a viable radical and reasonable alternative. If campaigned for, there is every reason to believe this would command majority assent.

What I have tried to do in my amendments is to cut out the neo-liberal reasoning about choice based access to ‘good’ schools and argue for what needs to be done to make every school a good one. On local accountability the document is utterly evasive (waiting for Blunkett?). I suggest that the hub for local involvement should be democratically reformed local authorities (Blunkett has already promised ahead of his report that Labour will not do this!).

I have removed all the talk about education hinging entirely on the quality of teachers by pointing out that structures matter and that Labour should commit to putting all schools on the same legal, organisational and financial footing. Gove seized on Labour’s creation of academy schools outside of he local authority framework as his trojan horse. He has pursued this goal with great energy and with no serious resistance from Labour. Now it is time to back out of this developing disaster and to bring schools back into the framework of local democracy.

Labour, through Tristam Hunt, has taken to damning teachers by strong praise. The draft document says that “The importance of teacher quality in our schools and colleges cannot be overstated” (Actually it says “understated” but this is clearly a mistake indicating perhaps the care and attention lavished on the document). This sounds like support – but if you think that, think again. This theme is familiar to right-wing educational reform the world around. If you make teachers into the be all and end all of the success of education, then if things go wrong it is clearly their fault.

The mantra is nonsense. One could say that a water delivery system can be no better than the pipes that deliver the water. But if the reservoir is empty the best pipes in the world will be of no use. The document speaks of re-professionalising teachers but only see this in terms of them all achieving Qualified Teacher Status (the great majority have it) and not in terms of them determining their conditions of service in the manner of a real professional body. I have therefore included the need to restore national conditions of service in all state-funded schools.

Finally, Labour uses Ofsted as a criterion for what is good or bad in schools. This is a big mistake. Ofsted has pioneered a new punitive approach to inspection. It has inappropriate criteria and operates through tenders to private companies like CERCO. This must end. We need a reformed inspection service.

I have tried to include these ideas, and a number of others, in my four amendments. I hope that these will be helpful to those thinking of making amendments of their own. I do not know at this stage if my amendments will be adopted by my CLP or affiliate but like the rest of us, all I can do is to state things in the best way I know how and leave it for others to judge.

I have only dealt with the sections of the document dealing with schools and vocational education. Others will need to take up such issues as early learning and university education.

There is very little time left to get amendments through. So get scribbling if you have not already done so!

4 Comments

  1. James Martin says:

    Hunt is of course part of the problem and not part of the solution. That said, he at least has the benefit of being more intelligent and energetic than Twigg, although that is hardly much of an achievement.

    The weak point of Hunt’s arguments is Free Schools. Labour has correctly opposed their continued expansion, and criticised the many failings of the ones already in existence. And yet at the same time they are completely uncritical of academies.

    The nonsense of this position is of course that free schools and academies are the same thing, with free schools in legal terms (under the 2010 Academies Act) being starter rather than converter academies. But of course given they are the same thing, the criticisms of free schools can easily be – and should easily be extended to the whole academies project.

    We also need to push at the open door that is privatisation. The marketization of schools in England, the increasing role of profit making academy chains, and the removal of local accountability and democracy are all no different to the issues that are affecting the NHS. And yet while there is widespread recognition of what is happening in the NHS with creeping privatisation, that has not been the case with schools – and indeed we have many Labour LA’s who have actively supported academisation of their own local schools (there have of course been some that have put up significant fights against academisation – as did one or two Tory LA’s such as Lancashire). So there is a real need to carry on making some very basic arguments about just what academies amount to.

    The other significant area that the LP has run away from nationally is the increasing hold that religious groups have on schools at a time when religious observance is in free fall. This is made far more dangerous with academies and free schools. It remains to be seen just what has been going on in some Birmingham academies with accusations of extremist/salafist organised takeovers, but what isn’t in doubt is the increasing numbers of Muslim free schools and academies that are growing in areas like Lancashire. As these schools are invariably 100% Asian in intake and exist in towns with recent race riots we have sleepwalked into a situation where in some parts of the country an Asian child will go to a Muslim nursery, followed by a Muslim primary, secondary and sixth form and throughout that time never mix with a non-Muslim white child (and vice-versa of course). Add that to segregated housing areas (even in public housing) and we have a powder keg that is growing ever more dangerous. And yet what does Hunt and the LP leadership say? What does the draft education policy document say? Nothing!

    No wonder Gove has had such a free run, when our own leaders (with the recent exception of Andy Burnham who was only in post for a year) are so utterly clueless.

    1. David Pavett says:

      Robert, you are right that free schools are academies. However academies are not one thing. There are a variety of legal difference between them. The twist with free schools is, of course, that they can be set up by activists like Toby Young, and have special conditions about being able to give admission preference to children of the school ‘founders’. Labour’s position on this is completely untenable. Both Twigg and Hunt claimed to oppose free schools but to support “parent-led academies”. No one that I know of has discovered any difference. Repeated questions to Shadow Schools Minister Kevin Brennan on this produced two promises of a reply but one never came.

      You are right also about privatisation. Anyone wanting to know more about this can do no better than to read the TUC material on this. There is a short campaign document and a full study. This is devastating stuff.

      Finally, I entirely agree about religious schools. Amartya Sen said that this is likely to be the worst long-term legacy of the Blair years (in his book Identity and Violence).

  2. peter willsman says:

    CLPD will shortly be circulating to every CLP by Email a range of suggested amendments for each of the 8 Policy docs.for CLPs to consider and hopefully,where appropriate, use as a basis for their submissions.

    1. David Pavett says:

      Since I have gone to the effort of considering the Education and Children document in some detail I would have appreciated some comment on what I have proposed. Instead you merely announce that the CLPD wlll be pronouncing on the matter. You will understand, I hope, that this sounds like the sort of hierarchical machine politics that the left should be opposing rather than practising itself. It suggests that whatever efforts we have made as individuals (and there are precious few such efforts on the left concerning education) all we have to do now is sit back and wait for manna from the CLPD.

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