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Preparing for Labour’s conference: schools policy

Labour’s national policy forum (NPF) report 2013 for this year’s party conference is now available for all to read. Education is dealt with in the section devoted to the annual report of the Education and Child Care Commission on pages 70 to 76 and in a policy paper on childcare on pages 78 to 80. The discussion of schools and 16-19 training and education is found in the annual report and it is that section which is considered below.

The policy substance in this Report of just over 3000 words is slender. It can be summarised as follows:

  1. Labour’s approach to schools is based on “three key themes: Freedom, Devolution and Collaboration
  2. Labour would give all (state supported) schools the same freedoms such as freedom over the curriculum
  3. Where freedoms are damaging they will be removed
  4. Labour would ensure that there is a core curriculum entitlement which would cover English, maths science and also citizenship, sport, and relationships and sexual health
  5. Labour wants “stronger local accountability” for schools. The Blunkett Review is looking into this
  6. Labour is concerned about the crisis in primary school places
  7. Labour would end the free schools programme (but will support ‘parent-led academies’)
  8. Labour believes that “every school has an important part to play in working with the community
  9. The Commission recognises the value of a high quality careers service
  10. Further Education colleges“are crucial to developing a high quality skills system”
  11. All teachers must have a teaching qualification or must be working towards one
  12. The Commission intends to discuss reducing the inequality gap in our system and how to raise the attainment of the most vulnerable.

That is it. Don’t ask for detail or explanation on these points. The document gives none. The above is all that the document contains in terms of Labour policy for schools.

It would be difficult to realise from reading this document that we have been engaged in an educational revolution in the last three years. Michael Gove has led a transformation which has already decoupled half our secondary schools from their local authorities (i.e. from local democratic influence). Schools are being converted into independent institutions responding to quasi-market demand. They commission services from the market as independent units. Furthermore, the independence of schools is something of an illusion. A school in an Academy Chain is liable to have less freedom of choice than it had with a local authority.

Freedom in these circumstances essentially means freedom from democratic decision-making. The public pays the piper, but cannot call the tunes. Devolution means removing schools from a local framework of policy making. Collaboration is a mask to hide the self-seeking tendencies that this version of freedom that this idea of devolution inevitably sets in motion. An innocent reader of this document might imagine that schools working within local authority frameworks never collaborated. There are hundreds of examples of such collaboration. Freedom conceived of as freedom from local democracy, along with league tables and an excessive system of testing and examinations, inevitably puts schools into competition with each other.

Everyone wants freedom and wants power to be exercised at the most appropriate level. That is apple pie and motherhood. Beyond that everything depends on the specifics. But specifics are precisely what this document does not contain. The document says that the school system (in England) has been fragmented but makes no proposals for defragmenation. In fact it proposes to complete the fragmentation by giving all schools the same “freedoms” from local democracy. Stephen Twigg has spoken about restoring teachers’ national conditions of service and giving local authorities oversight of all schools but none of that is in this document. All we get is vague policy statements that would leave the main thrust of the Gove reforms intact.

This is not the way forward for Labour. We need a plan to restore local democracy in education (albeit one requiring a major reform of local authority practices regarding openness and public participation). Labour should commit to making every local school a good school to end the madness of parents rushing around choosing between competing schools (a process that inevitably favours the better off). Finally, we need a real opposition to Gove’s reforms and not the hardly visible opposition of the last three years. Labour should reject market-based models and argue for good schools for all within a democratic local framework. To develop policies that achieve this, Labour should use the large pool of educational expertise on which it has so far failed to call. A party seeking wider democracy should itself be democratic. If Conference wants to be something other than a TV show then it should refer this section of the Report back for re-consideration.

4 Comments

  1. James Martin says:

    Despite some fierce competition, Twigg must be the most useless do-nothings on the shadow front bench (most teachers have never heard of him). This is not accidential, but a result of him actually supporting most of Gove’s competion nonsense.

    A few points on a good summery. No Free Schools but ‘Parent-led academies’? Utter nonsense, as apart from the fact that in legal terms a ‘free school’ is normally just a starter academy rather than an existing school that has converted (they are covered by the 2010 Academies Act), what does it mean? Most academies are not created by parents anyway but by personally ambitious head teachers (who change their names to principal and get an extra £20-40k a year out of a stretched school budget for doing the same job), or are the result of chains (with similarly over-paid executives) expanding their empires.

    Religion – there seems to be nothing on this, and yet a disaster in the making is taking place where at a time when religious belief/observance in the UK is falling, religious groups are being given control of ever more publically funded schools. E.g., in areas of the NW (where I live) we now have kids that go to a muslim nursery, followed by a muslim primary, followed by a muslim secondary/6th form free school/academy. These schools are 100% asian in intake, meaning we have aparthied and ghettoisation by default. The dangerous social consequences down the road of this situation are pretty obvious, and yet what are we saying about it?

    Qualifications – the reason Gove is introducing the new style GCSE’s in England (but not Wales) is so the likely disaster in falling standards his broken English state school system, full of competing academy schools with higher costs and companies and chains making profits (even without profot-making schools) will be hidden and harder to compare (as only England in the 4 UK nations has academies), and yet Twigg has nothing to say here.

    Studio Schools and UTC’s – for those that don’t know these are available for academies (but not maintained schools) to set up and provide ‘vocational’ style education from the ages of 14-19. Although they can be run by the acadamies, and even be in the same building, A-C exam results are seperated and don’t count with the linked/owning academy. The result is they are becoming secondary moderns by default where academies will dump their bottom 10-15% academic ability pupils, and they will use them to artificially boost their A-C league table positions (and Gove will trumpet their rise) at the expense of local maintained schools. It is deliberate manipulation – and yet what has Twigg got to say about it? Yep, nothing at all…

  2. swatantra says:

    A good article revealing the flaws inherent in the NPF Policy Document. Basically we need to mget back to good local neighbourhood State Schools delivering a good but flexible curriculum.
    On Point 3, let me instance Faith schools. I have no idea why Labour went with the silly idea of Faith Schools; perhaps they were too gullable in believing in ‘choice’. The trouble is that too much ‘choice’ or ‘competition’ creates more problems than it solves. Faith Schools defeat any aim of more integration and building cohesive communities . Faith Schools not only perpetuate divisions in society, but accelerate those very divisions. I for one don’t want to see monocultural schools, or monocultural communities, even if we have to bus our pupils around. We have to let them experience the multicultural multiethnic society that they will actually be living in, long after we are gone.

  3. David Pavett says:

    @James Martin and swatantra

    I agree about faith schools. And then there is the issue of private schools and their perks. These are questions which cannot be discussed in the Labour Party. I once raised faith schools at a meeting with Stephen Twigg. All he said was “It’s a difficult issue”, which he said twice. That was it!

    I agree too that Twigg is probably the weakest link in a generally weak Shadow Cabinet chain, although as James says, he has some very stiff competition.

    General comment in an around the Labour Party seems to concur that Twigg is a very poor performer and that he has few ideas of any merit. That is bad enough but my nightmare is that things could get even worse. The article in yesterday’s Guardian by Lord Adonis looks very much like a job application.

    Labour could win support with a decent schools policy. Is Ed Miliband up to choosing someone who can do this?

  4. David Pavett says:

    Sorry, in my last post the reference for the Adonis article was to the London Evening Standard and not the Guardian.

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