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When will Labour critique and respond to Gove’s revolution?

Michael GoveIt is the age of the “gold standard”. The Labour party has circulated eight consultation documents which set out draft policy proposals for the 2015 manifesto. Education is dealt with in Education and Children” and to a lesser extent in Work and Business”. Apparently  they should be read in conjunction with the recently-issuedOne Nation Society” andOne Nation Economy” documents (I commented on the former here).

Let’s start with the good news. There are commitments to extending early years provision. Labour would expand free child-care for working parents of 3-4 year-olds from 15 to 25 hours per week. It would also commit to providing “wrap-around” school-based child-care from 8 am to 6 pm.

Apart from that there are are few clear commitments. Labour insists that all teachers should have qualified status (most schools already do that) and it would make food standards apply to all schools. Apprenticeships should last 2-3 years and should include off-the-job training and maths and English education should continue to 18. There is a commitment to “devolve power” from Whitehall but no indication of what this means. The same is true of all the other major proposals (suggestions). In all this Gove’s restructuring of the English education system goes without mention. It is clear that  (1) Labour wants as few educational commitments as possible and (2) Gove’s reforms will remain essentially intact under Labour.

But this is a consultation so isn’t it all up for grabs? If only enough constituency parties and affiliates put in clear amendments taking a more or less common radical alternative approach can we not change things?

The signs are not encouraging. (1) The content of this document is virtually identical to that of the education section of “One Nation Society”. (2) The policies advocated are already being put as Labour policy in speeches by Tristram Hunt. (3) Labour has spent three and a half years putting up virtually no resistance to Gove’s reforms. Given the opaque nature of this “consultation” process (who selects the final amendments for the NPF from all those sent in?) there are grounds for doubting the meaningfulness of the process.

Even so, for now, we really have no alternative but to act as if it were a genuine consultation and to put in amendments to the draft documents. This seems, in the case “Education and Children”, like asking for amendments to convert Romeo and Juliet from a tragedy into a comedy – but no other options are offered.

“Education and Children” shows every sign of being written by a combination of policy hacks and PR people. The tedious rhetoric is relentless: “gold standard” occurs ten times without giving the slightest hint of what this means; “improvement” is replaced by “driving up standards” and so on. This language defect is, unfortunately, not a side issue but rather it is a reflection of the insubstantial nature of the document.

Let’s talk about teachers. The central idea is that the key to progress in education is raising the quality of teaching (i.e. of teachers). No doubt much can be done to help teachers do a better job, just as in any other walk of life, but it has to be said that focusing everything on teachers rather than the system within which they work is the sort of criticism that one might rather expect from the Daily Mail. The NHS has real problems but does that mean that the central issue is the shortcomings of individual doctors and nurses? Clearly not, and it is truly disturbing to see this position being taken by Labour with respect to education.

The striking thing is (no pun intended) that the talk of teaching quality involves not a word about teachers pay and conditions of service. Teachers in high-performing countries such as Finland have a significantly smaller load of classroom teaching so that they can spend real time on development of materials and other pedagogical issues. They also have nationally agreed pay and conditions. None of this is mentioned in Labour’s talk of “re-professionalisation”. Worse, Labour proposes extending academy freedoms to all schools. These include individual school determination of pay and conditions. This is the opposite of re-professionalisation. Also, Tristram Hunt advocates, on the basis of zero evidence, performance related pay.

National curriculum: While wanting to extend academy freedoms to opt out of the national curriculum Labour appears also to want a core curriculum, but we are given not the slightest idea what this means beyond including numeracy and literacy.

Vocational education: We are told repeatedly that Labour will introduce a “gold standard” vocational education for the “forgotten 50 per cent” but there is no detail. What is worse is that it is implied that the problems of the British economy are basically those of a skill shortage rather than of lack of investment. Again it is the individuals in the system who are found wanting and not the system itself.

Local oversight of schools: Much is made of Labour’s rejection of the idea of running schools from Whitehall and that is fair enough. The current system for non-local authority schools is clearly untenable and this is implicitly recognised by Gove with his proposal for regional Regional schools commissioners from September 2014. But, as usual the devil is in the detail and detail there is none. All the talk of local accountability and local communities being able to have their say is therefore meaningless. Not only that but the documents resolutely ignores Gove’s hacking away of local authority involvement in education. The word “local” occurs 22 times but never in conjunction with “authority” or “council”.

Where do we go from here? If this document were merely vacuous that would be bad enough but it is worse than that. By its superficial analysis, its lack of detail and its failure to criticise the Gove reforms it is implicit in their continuation. It is a clear attempt to show that the current party direction on education has the support of the members. The least we can do is to produce a coherent riposte. If we cannot break through this sham consultation we can at least show that it is not based on proper consideration of the alternatives. Establishing what a coherent response might look like sounds like another article entirely.

5 Comments

  1. Chris says:

    Labour almost never outright opposes government policy. It merely dissents from some of the details.

  2. swatantra says:

    What revolution? There is no Gove revolution; he’s merely pottering around in the garden shed.
    That pilot scheme of Free Schools will flounder and sink in a couple of years time, anyway. Gove is a nonentity; there are no big ideas like ‘Comprehensive Education’ around these days; or the ‘National Curriculum’. There is talk about aping the Asian Tigers in their approach to Education rigour; but what works in Asia will not work in Britain.

  3. David Pavett says:

    @swatantra

    1. Gove has moved more than half the nations secondary schools out of the orbit of local democracy.

    2. Academy chains are acting as a half-way house to privatisation. See the TUC material “Education not for sale”

    3. Teachers conditions are being undermined by giving academies the right to set their own.

    4. The education curriculum is being increasingly controlled by politicians (Gove)

    There’s more but that is perhaps enough to show that this is rather more tha “pottering around in the garden shed”.

  4. SANDRA CRAWFORD says:

    I do not wish to do too much explaining here because I am still studying what is happening to schools myself.
    But I thought you might be interested in this link to Michael Rosen, where he implies that title deeds to schools are being handed to private companies by Gove.
    Maybe this is why Labour are quiet – the legal position to control academies by local councils is being removed.
    If this is the case, a genuinely intentioned Labour government may either have to declare the deals illegal or impose burgeoning land taxes for the schools onto the companies. (To encourage them to give them up).
    But preempting decisions might be difficult.

    See the link here:-

    http://michaelrosenblog.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/gove-nicked-our-schools-and-handed-them.html

  5. David Pavett says:

    @Sandra Crawford

    The Michael Rosen piece is strange. He gives no link and no author. I have spent half an hour trying to locate the piece on the Guardian CiF site and have not found it. I don’t think the information is correct. The best site for legal issues of schools is David Wolfe’s A can of worms.

    I am not a legal expert but I believe that the normal situation is that when an Academy is set up it gets a 125 year leasehold on the land.

    Somewhere, I can’t remember where at the moment, David Wolfe deals with the issue of changing the legal status of Academies and suggests that it would not be a major problem for Parliament.

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