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What the general election means for education

School studentsThe basic facts behind Labour’s commitment to education are impressive. Between 1997 and 2010 there were 360,00 more teachers, 172,000 more teaching assistants, and 1,100 new schools built. Results improved, with 12% more pupils achieving five good GCSE grades, and 20% more 11 year old achieving expected standards in English and maths. The further education sector saw £4.2 billion investment, and Education Maintenance Allowances (EMA) of up to £30 per week allowed tens of thousands of young people from poorer families to stay in education until 18.

Outside of schools, the last Labour government invested £50 million into the Union Learning Fund, supporting 490 projects in 3000 workplaces, helping 10,0000 workers improve their skills, and therefore benefiting both themselves and their employers. In addition, over 3,000 new Childrens’ Centres were established, to support parents, on the understanding that early years’ intervention has a lasting benefit, particularly for children from disadvantaged families.

Under Labour, the education budget soared, rising 60% between 1998 and 2008. Total annual spending was £30 billion in 1997, and £64 billion in 2005, on top of which capital investment jumped from £680 million in 1997 to an estimated £5 billion in 2005. These are powerful arguments in favour of a Labour vote in the coming general election.

In contrast, the Lib-Dem/Conservative coalition government has attacked the pensions and pay of teachers and school support staff. In 2010 they cut 700 planned “Schools for the Future” projects, and current school building programmes are at only 5% of the level under the last Labour government. They cut the EMA and have reduced standards in FE colleges, where lecturers no longer need teaching qualifications. In schools the government has allowed permanent contracts for unqualified teachers, this has led to a 16% rise in unqualified teachers in all schools and a 49% rise of unqualified teachers in Free Schools. The Free Schools themselves are often opened where there is no requirement for them, and a third have been judged inadequate, or in need of improvement.

Nevertheless, the record of the last Labour government remains controversial, and there was an unprecedented amount of legislative activity, including 9 separate education acts. These encountered sustained opposition both within the party, and from educationalists. Labour extended performance management, parent choice, competition, and the role of the private sector.

This stood in stark contrast to the position of John Smith, who as party leader had pledged to restore the powers of Local Education Authorities, and denounced the “false and inadequate theory of choice”.

It is worth saying that the driving motivation for the Blair government’s education agenda was to tackle educational inequality. Research by the Social Exclusion Unit showed that around 2.5% of the population – drawn from less than 1 in 20 families – is locked into deeply entrenched social exclusion; and it became perceived government wisdom that institutional conservatism and complacency in the education sector was a contributory factor, and schools needed shaking up.

The policies were not without some success. During the course of the Labour government, funding per pupil rose 50%, the schools were better funded and staffing levels and pay improved. In 1997 a third of pupils left primary schools without basic English and maths skills, by 2005 that had fallen to a quarter, and the improvement in deprived areas was better than the national average. A range of measures in pre-school education, such as Sure Start centres, made a real difference.

So the record in social exclusion was one of good progress. However this sat uneasily with the expansion of parent choice and diversity, which favoured the already advantaged families; academic studies showed that the “quasi-market” increased rather than decreased the concentration of pupils from lower income families in failing schools. The regime of metrics and inspection arguably distorted teaching towards what could be measured, and increased both teacher workloads and stress.

There is no doubt that the commitments from Labour for the next parliament will improve the lives of millions. The next Labour government will extend free childcare for parents with 3 and 4 year olds from 15 to 25 hours, and guarantee “wraparound” childcare for primary school children, allowing access to childcare from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm, to help working parent. Labour will also reinvigorate Sure Start.

Labour will guarantee that all teachers in state schools are qualified, and ensure that schools are locally accountable. Labour will also increase the number and quality of apprenticeships.

However, it must be a priority for the party to place itself at the centre of a coalition of consensus about education policy, with meaningful engagement with the teaching and education unions. This requires addressing staffing problems, such as excessive workload; but it must also address the concerns that the last Labour government rolled out educational reforms without adequate consultation, and committed to them before evidence based evaluation had established their merits. We need a renewed commitment towards the comprehensive principle and the objective towards greater equality of educational outcomes, and that may require us to draw a line under some of the policies of the last Labour government.


  1. James Martin says:

    To say what is right with the current Labour education policy wouldn’t take much time at all (as it amounts to a few lines of Phil’s article). To say what is wrong with it and what is missing from it would take an awful lot longer.

    But 3 quick points:

    1. While up to now funding for 5-16 education has been protected, this is not the case for early years (that has been cut massively, hence the closure of large numbers of Sure Start centres), central services provided by LA’s (from SEN provision to specialist sport and music teachers, all of which has seen huge job losses), and post 16 where the per pupil funding is at crisis point (hence huge job losses in 6th Form and FE colleges). Therefore we need to look at proper funding for the entire age range and for all services.

    2. The continuing dangerous mess of academy and free schools in England must be stopped and these schools need to be brought back into national pay structures and local democratic oversight and control from LA’s.

    3. We need to stop talking as though staff in schools equate to just teachers and head teachers. There are hundreds of thousands of support staff on low pay and who face attacks by outsourcing and privatisation (particularly in academies). Therefore our language needs to change and we should talk of education workers as a whole, rather than certain elite and better paid sections of school and college workforces.

    1. John.P reid says:

      Well said James ,Labour Party members are right behind this, but is it it such an important issue with the wider current labour voting electorate, I feel a housing Loval and public transport are much more important among them and jobs

  2. Barry Ewart says:

    Education under the Tories is about the Wheat and the Chaff.
    Through the competiton of exams (elaborate memory tests) they produce the next generation of managers of capitalism and those who will do the crummy jobs to make capitalism work.
    Public Schools are there (thanks to state intervention and the subsidy of upper class welfare state) to produce the callous next generation of uncritical capitalist leaders.
    So we teach young people that some of them are ‘bright’ and some are ‘thick’ and their narrow exam results reinforce this.
    But it is really divide and rule and the beginning of the brainwashing of the next generation, preparing them for their subtle capitalist exploitation.
    Hence the latest Tory focus on judging people on exam results instead of in course assessment which gives a much better picture of the humanity of human beings.
    Tragically some particularly working class people may go through their whole lives thinking that their ideas may be worthless because their exam results have told them so.
    But as human beings and particulary as poor working class human beings (because of your life experiences) you may have a beautiful idea to address climate change, global poverty, housing, on the economy etc. etc. but may not have the confidence to speak and I would argue the World loses out from the lack of such voices.
    Within capitalism and particularly under the Tories I would argue we do not have an education policy, we have a de-education policy when more than ever, we need a World of critical citizens.
    All human being and particularly diverse working class people should take the power and not be controlled by the extremely narrow judgment of exams, share your dreams!
    X,peace & International solidarity!

  3. David Pavett says:

    It is true that the last Labour governments notched up some significant improvements in education. It is true too that Labour’s current policies would bring about valuable improvements in some areas. The general background, however, is one of general acceptance of neo-liberal educational nostrums (such as the need to ‘drive standards up’ with diversity of provision plus ‘parental choice’l).

    Labour launched academies and, while these were in an effort to improve provision in deprived areas, they did so by decoupling schools from local democracy. Gove picked up this idea and ran with it to no opposition from Labour. A new Labour government would not attempt to undo Gove’s revolution. As in so many other things it is the Tories who set the baseline from which Labour works.

    Labour in government also adopted the socially toxic policy of encouraging the formation of faith schools. A new Labour government would continue this policy which is wildly inappropriate in a society as culturally and ethically diverse as ours.

    Labour is so far from a “renewed commitment to the comprehensive principle” that it still rejects attempts to get it to oppose selective examinations for grammar schools and does not have a clear policy to deal with the problem of schools acting as their own admissions authorities.

    And then there is the problem of free schools the creation of which would have a new lease of life under Labour as “parent-led academies”. These even seem to be Tristram Hunt’s preferred type of school (see his talk to the right-wing think tank Policy Exchange at Labour Conference).

    Andy Newman’s idea of Labour putting itself at the centre of “a coalition of consensus about education policy, with meaningful engagement with the teaching and education unions …” is a good one but what is the chance of it doing so in government when it has so singularly failed to do it in opposition. Any real intention to follow such a policy would have to start with the replacement of Tristram Hunt who has neither the will nor the ability to pursue it. Everyone knows this which is why his name is rarely mentioned in discussions about how Labour could change education for the better.

  4. gerry says:

    Labour policies on education are way better than Tory ones but still too cautious and not-joined up. And reducing fees to £6k is good but the goal must be to get rid of tuition fees altogether , and to eliminate student debt in the future. Old fashioned I know I sound – but education should be free, comprehensive, and open to all: diversity of provision is ok but everybody should have an equal choice, not just the clued- up few.

  5. Barry Ewart says:

    We should have Democratic Schools overseen by democratic local authorities and allow the whole community in the catchment areas to elect the governers and no change of status of schools without a community ballot.
    It’s not every day you march part of the way round in a demo with a female Morris Dancer but we got talking to such a woman at the Save the NHS march in Leeds on Saturday 28/3/15 (attended by 1,000 plus).
    Interestingly she works in FE and I in HE and we are both in the UCU and she was telling me about the terrible cuts in FE.
    I mentioned I had read 2 UCU activists at Bolton College had just been sacked for speaking out and I had signed the UCU petition to support them.
    I argued all the staff in FE (teachers and non-teachers) should elect the College Principal and Governing Body (who would draw up a shortlist of 3 candidates for Principal of which one must be a woman) and we should also do this in universities to give power to those working in such institutions – FE & HE should belong to us all!
    We should also make big business pay and have free HE.
    I also recently read that whilst the Educational Maintenace Allowance (which helps working class kids in FE) was scrapped in England, the SNP kept it in Scotland and have just announced they will make this available to an extra 10,000 working class kids in Scotland including part-time students.
    We need an education system which serves working people and their families.
    I have adapted a lovely quote for education: Education should not b a chore that is dutiful but where we seek the truth, the good and the beautiful!

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