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Labour’s timid education manifesto – and what it must include next time

Tristram Hunt 1Our education eystem has undergone a severe and vicious ideological assault since 2010 with teacher morale at all-time lows, a rise in child mental health issues due to over testing and a teacher recruitment crisis to name but a few. Never was there such an education Secretary that provoked such vitriol and contempt than Michael Gove. His successor, Nicky Morgan, is hardly winning any popularity contests either.

It really should have been easy fare for Labour with this on their side but instead they produced what could only be described as one of the blandest and most timid education manifestos they have ever written which sadly failed to get to grips with key educational issues. Our children are some of the most over tested children in the world, with tests starting as young as five, an age where in most countries they are enjoying a more holistic curriculum centred on social skills and learning through play.

In 2016, the Tories will introduce nationally what is known as the ‘Baseline test’. This test will see our youngest aged school children saddled with a test score before they have even got a chance to see what school life is about. The test has already been lambasted by early years experts across the board with Richard House, chartered psychologist and former senior lecturer in early childhood at Winchester University and founder of the “Too Much, Too Soon” campaign describing the test as an “unwarranted dragooning of young children into institutional schooling that is then generating the need to assess them”.

Whilst Labour should have been arguing against the negative effects of formal testing at such an early age, Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt was bizarrely seen to be supporting the move stating that there was “A strong social justice case for bringing in baseline assessment”. Childline’s annual review on mental health (2013-2014) saw exam and curriculum stress appear in their list of top ten issues for the first time, with exam stress having a rise of 200 percent from the previous year. In addition to this, teacher unions have continually voiced major concerns over ‘teaching to the test’.

A recent report from the exam board AQA found that too much emphasis on exam results when assessing schools’ performance has led in the worst cases to “unintended and undesirable consequences”, such as “teaching to the test, narrowing the curriculum and focusing on those students whose performance has the greatest impact on the headline accountability measures”. Even those outside the educational field have shared these concerns with the CBI’s (Confederation of British Industry) John Cridland labelling our schools ‘exam factories’. Shockingly, there was not one mention of this in Labour’s education manifesto.

Labour should be making a clear case to move away from the narrow testing culture which has overtaken our schools. Following in the footsteps of the constant pressure on teachers to teach to the test, it hardly comes as a great revelation that a survey carried out by the government last year showed that teachers are working up to 60 hours a week with many teachers citing unnecessary bureaucratic workload and a punitive Ofsted regime as the main cause. In April of this year, 15000 ATL members signed an open letter calling for more teacher support stating that politicians have made teachers’ working lives “increasingly difficult and for many, unbearable” and that “a constant fear of being judged to be failing” was “bleeding the profession dry”.

Due to this never-ending and unnecessary pressure, thousands of good teachers are leaving in their droves. 2 in 5 teachers leave the profession within in the first five years. It is worth noting that none of this excessive bureaucracy helps the social wellbeing or academic achievement of pupils. If we want a first class education system then having overwrought and overworked teachers constantly living in fear of Ofsted is not the solution. In order to make teaching an attractive profession whereby teachers are trusted as professional then Labour needs to ensure that it challenges any initiatives from the Tories that would increase workload. It also needs look at a clear measures to deal with the teacher workload crisis alongside a review into the effectiveness of Ofsted. In keeping with their never ending assault on the poor the latest Tory budget has seen a fresh round of cuts.

According to the Child Poverty Action Group in the UK 3.5 million children are growing up in poverty with numbers expected to rise to 4.7 million children by 2020. Many of these children growing up in poverty are in households where at least one parent works. There has been a huge number of families relying on foodbanks and many children have had to be uprooted from their schools and communities due to the bedroom tax. Child poverty and social deprivation have a huge impact on a child’s ability to succeed both academically and socially. Whilst it was pleasing to note that Labour promised in the education manifesto to revive the Sure Start programme which has withered significantly under the Tories, it all rang rather hollow with the ‘austerity lite’ package that was being offered by Labour.

Whoever becomes the next leader must take an anti-austerity stance in order to put an end to child poverty and show that the Labour party is seriously committed to ensuring that all children have a good start in life. The introduction of Academies and Free Schools has resulted in an extremely fragmented education system. Whilst Labour pledged to end the Free Schools programme it was still advocating the academies programme (which it started) as a success despite continual evidence showing otherwise. Neither was there a mention in the manifesto that existing free schools would be returned to their Local Education Authorities. Labour must review its position and now look at putting an end to both the academies and free schools programme with a view to bring them back under local authority control.

Continuing with their neo-liberal vision for education the Tories have further undermined the teaching profession with their introduction of Performance Related Pay. This unfair measure not only pits teacher against teacher but makes no impact on pupil improvement with the OECD research on the impact of PRP in teaching concluding that “the overall picture reveals no relationship between average student performance in a country and the use of performance-based pay schemes.” Labour must make the case against PRP and in its next manifesto seek to restore a national pay structure for all schools.

With such apparent problems in our education system it is evident that Labour must offer clear radical alternatives and not pander to the neo-liberal agenda for education.

2 Comments

  1. Mervyn Hyde says:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/03/finnish-education-chief-we-created-a-school-system-based-on-equality/284427/

    The problem has been that the right in politics don’t want to educate our children they just want a select few that will be privileged enough to do the bidding of the feral elite, the rest can fight among themselves for the scraps that come their way.

    Blairites and hangers on are not concerned with real people they are looking after themselves.

  2. David Pavett says:

    I agree with all Naomi Fearon’s main points – even if I baulk at the statistical meaninglessness of statements like “exam stress has increased by 200%”.

    The major problem is to see how Labour can find a way to an approach to education that not based on neo-liberal principles.

    1. Labour supports the programme to turn all state schools into state-supported independent schools (academies). After all it started the programme and the argument that Labour academies were different in kind is baloney. Labour’s academies ripped schools out of the local authority framework and made them into independent units. That might have solved some specific issues but it was never going to provide the framework that education needs.

    2. The Last major NPF meeting before the election could not even bring itself to call for an end to selective examinations at eleven. Consistent with that it declined to consider ending selective schooling on state funds. Hunt warned the delegates that it might lose Parliamentary seats in Kent and that seemed to be enough to stop them in their tracks.

    3. Labour’s biggest concession in its last manifesto was to allow local authorities to set up new schools but only if they competed for the right to do so with independent providers and were judged in the matter by a government approved Director of School Standards who would be statutorily independent of local authorities. In other words LAs can compete only when they learn to see themselves as just another provider competing in the market with others.

    4. Labour’s educational leaders have consistently refused to engage with the ideas put by educational campaigning groups including Labour’s own educational affiliate the Socialist Educational Association (which is not even given a place on the Education and Children Commission).

    5. Tristram Hunt has, on the basis of no evidence and therefore purely on the basis of his ideological leanings, advocated performance related pay for teachers. He has received no criticism for this from the Labour leadership so we have to think that they are comfortable with the idea.

    6. Labour is not even prepared to remove tax breaks for private schools. Instead it proposed to remove the breaks unless private schools linked with state schools to show them how to do things – the worst of all possible solutions which would end up giving spurious justification to private schools.

    The fact is that Labour educational policy has reached rock bottom it is a follow my leader policy in which the leader is the Tory Party. Labour has no informed and structured debate on education and is without any sense of a critique of the present system.

    Changing Labour’s stance on education is therefore a massive task and one requiring a real effort throughout that party. None of the leadership candidates have much knowledge of education have much knowledge of education as their interviews on the issue make all too clear. Corbyn is clearly closest to a democratic and socialist perspective on the question but doesn’t have any sense of the detail.

    Naomi Fearon says “Whoever becomes the next leader must take an anti-austerity stance …”. There is of course no chance of this unless the next leader is Jeremy Corbyn. And then there is the issue that opposition is not enough. Being anti-austerity is one thing. Proposing clear alternatives is another (as the experience of Syriza painfully reveals). It is the same with education. Being against what the Tories are doing is a long way from providing a clear path to an alternative.

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