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A new direction for education under Labour?

school pupilsThe transformation of the English education system by Michael Gove has been one of the most far-reaching of the the changes made by the Coalition government. The majority of secondary schools have been removed from the framework of local democracy. Many have been absorbed into academy chains some of which have more schools than some local authorities ever had. They also exert a higher degree of control than while at the same time having no democratic mandate and operating outside of local democracy.

While Gove has rampaged through the education system, Labour has criticised details but has been without a substantial alternative. There have been valid criticisms of (1) control of schools from Whitehall, (2) the over-prescriptive national curriculum, (3) founding free schools where extra places are not required, (4) bullying schools into becoming academies (4) the abolition of the education maintenance allowance (5) the breaking of teachers’ national pay and conditions (though this is said sotto voce), (6) the use of unqualified staff, (7) the reversion to written exams only assessment; (8) admissions procedures that reinforce inequality.

These criticisms do not amount to an alternative vision. The three-year period of the Coalition’s educational reforms has felt like being on a ship which has been taken over by a captain who rejects modern navigational techniques and who is directing it onto the rocks while his critics take him to task for: the use of unqualified seamen; money wasted on decorating the captains’ quarters; bullying staff to join a company union; using out-dated instruments. All valid criticisms but none of them deal with the ship’s direction.

Stephen Twigg’s speech to the RSA on 17 June was billed as giving direction for Labour education policy in the run up to 2015. Firstly, announcing policy in this way makes a mockery of Labour’s policy processes: The ideas of this speech had never been put up for discussion within the Party. Announcing policy in this way shows a total disregard for the Party’s democratic structures. The forthcoming National Policy Forum should have something to say about this and should insist on its rights if wants to be taken seriously.

Did Stephen Twigg’s RSA speech offer the promise of a new direction for English education?

He said that he wants to make three radical reforms: (1) more school freedom to promote higher standards; (2) devolution from Whitehall to local communities; (3) increased collaboration between schools. These reforms are said to be guided by “evidence not dogma”.

The key idea in the proposed reforms is to give all schools the freedoms of academies. Further, the aim is to encourage the formation of schools founded by parents and schools founded by teachers. Each school would be able to alter the length of school days, and the school and to order its own services. Would they also have the freedom to vary teachers pay and conditions? We are not told. (There are Labour murmurings on this but nothing clear.) Secondly, we are promised a revision of admissions procedures to prevent covert selection and a local authority oversight of standards in some unspecified way. Local authorities would be able to create new maintained schools but, of course those schools would operate as independent institutions.

When politicians speak of “freedom” it is appropriate to ask “freedom for whom?”. In this case the intended answer is ‘freedom for parents, for teachers’ and for schools’ and it is one that Stephen Twigg is proud to announce. This may appeal at first but a little reflection will should soon remind one that this is exactly the same language as that used by Michael Gove. So what is common and what is different?

What is different is the rolling back from some of the most ludicrous aspects of Gove’s policies. It is clearly not tenable to run all schools from Whitehall. A much discussed third tier between government and schools is required (although interestingly there is no explicit mention of this in the speech). Gove’s traditionalism on exams and the curriculum will not withstand scrutiny and will not produce the promised results.

On these points Stephen Twigg is right. But what is the basis for his approach? Gove has a theory and it is that of neo-liberalism: societal improvement through the pursuit of individual goals in a market context. Parents are required to play the role of consumers looking for the best product for their children rather than of citizens looking for the best social framework for education. Finnish education is much praised but without telling us that the Finns clearly and explicitly rejected this model.

Steven Twigg says the system should be determined by parental choice and schools acting as independent units by, for example choosing their own service providers. Again, this sounds good at first, until one realises that it is destructive of the idea of socially provided services and of a societal vision and purpose for schools.

It is based on the idea that  markets knows best. This is not evidence. It is dogma. This speech does not change change direction from that set by neo-liberal ideas. Anyone doubting this should read it in full themselves. This is not the way forward for Labour. These reforms would not lead to a fair and high-performing education system.

Image credit: pressmaster / 123RF Stock Photo

One Comment

  1. David Pavett says:

    P.S. (to my article above). Some Labour members have received an invitation to put questions to Steven Twigg about his RSA speech for a Q&A session on LabourList. To send a question read his speech then go to

    http://action.labour.org.uk/page/s/your-questions-for-stephen-twigg

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