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Education, the National Policy Forum and Labour policy

ChildrenAndEducationMeanwhile, back at the policy making process …

There is very little informed debate in the Labour party about education. There is very little informed debate in the Labour party about anything. It is a Party with various groups and individuals pushing for their particular viewpoint but organising informed discussion in which all of these views are fairly laid out for members to consider the alternatives and make up their own minds is just not a part of Labour’s traditions. That needs to change if Labour is to develop (regain?) any sense of a party with radical social objectives.

This problem is perfectly illustrated by Labour’s stance on education. Labour only ever had one big idea in education (comprehensive schools) and it had neither the knowledge nor the will to properly implement it Worse still, it ended up by disparaging it. It might be thought that Labour’s second most important idea, however regrettable,  was academies but it was an idea that was borrowed from the Tory City Technology Colleges, Swedish Free Schools and US Charter schools. Not only that it has turned out to be the most destructive idea in education for decades. Few people looking back at the history of academy schools will find any reason for surprise in the enthusiasm with which the Tories took up the idea of academies and ran with it.

Now the logic is being pushed to its ultimate conclusion of the complete separation of education from local government and local democracy with each school becoming a state-funded independent school. Labour in Parliament has mounted some telling criticisms of Tory plans but has no vision of an alternative way of running the education system. It certainly makes no suggestion of the need to bring schools back within the framework of local government. The effect of the government’s u-turn on forced academisation has been to leave Labour’s education policy exposed. It was effective in opposing the forcing but offers no resistance to academisation itself.

It is in this context that it is really stunning that this is all passed over in silence in the first round of Labour’s policy formation for the next election manifesto. The various Policy Commissions have put forward seven papers for debate leading up to an NPF meeting which will produce an Annual Report to Annual Conference on progress on policy development so far. The one on Education focuses on early years education (safe topic) and doesn’t mention the completion of Gove’s school revolution by forced academisation of primaries.

I don’t see any possibility of an informed debate on these matters without some significant effort being put into it by the NPF and the Education Policy Commission. That is clearly not going to happen this side of Annual Conference. I am therefore putting a motion to my Branch (see below) calling for that which I will propose as a response to the NPF/Education Commission draft policy document.

The need for a proper debate

The Conservation’s outright victory in the 2015 general election has emboldened them to dismember and dismantle public provision at an even greater rate than the previous administration. A sure sign of this is the deep cuts to local authorities already administered with even deeper ones yet to come. Damaging cuts at local authority level forces Councils into a situation in which their services must increasingly focus on the most vulnerable to the detriment of the role of public authorities as providers of universal services.
In the past the provision of schools and providing a strategic framework for them has been one of the most, if not the most, important function of local authorities. This government is determined to bring that role to an end with its policy of forced academisation of schools that still remain within a local authority framework (e.g. most primary schools). This is a policy that is wanted by almost nobody. It has no educational justification as Labour and most educationalists have argued.

The process of taking schools away from a local democratic framework is deeply damaging to the spirit of education as a public service. The majority of secondary schools were academised by the previous Coalition administration. The argument was that it gave schools greater freedom since they no longer had to fit into a framework of local provision. This argument is based on a marketising and privatising ideology according to which customer satisfaction is always maximised through diversity of provision and customer choice. This may be an effective approach for goods made for the market for the purpose of realising a profit. But children are not commodities and the same logic does not apply. There is widespread agreement on this extending even into the Conservative Party. Labour should act as focal point for expressing dissatisfaction with the Government’s approach.

Labour has been very good on criticising the forced academisation of primary schools. However it has so far not provided an alternative vision of education. Its criticism of the forced academisation of primary schools has focused on its forced nature. This suggests that Labour is happy with academisation so long as it is not forced. Many Labour members disagree and this is something we need to debate.

The National Policy Forum and the Education Commission should as a matter of urgency organise an informed debate in throughout the Labour party on what an alternative vision for education should look like. This should be done in an adult manner recognising that there are different and even contrary views within the party on education. Members should be given a clear explanation of different views so they they can decide for themselves the best way forward. We must enter the next election with a clear view of education so the reactive approach of the last six years will need to be replaced with that of a party which stands for a different approach to education rather than one that is limited to tweaking the Conservative wholesale reconstruction of the education system in the direction of individualisation and marketisation.

It would be useful if similar motions went forward from many CLP and if they covered the range of the draft papers which are all weak as I argued a few weeks ago. Melissa Benn has written a Guardian article which,  among other things, also calls on Labour to organise a debate on the way forward for our schools.


  1. John Penney says:

    Good article, David. I shall definitely propose a motion to my LP branch based on your Education Policy motion.

    Unfortunately , it is still the case that, almost by default, the policy substance as well as the overall ideology, resulting from the Labour Party’s adoption of neoliberalism under Blair , and Brown, is still firmly in place. Too many on the Left seemed to believe that , all the “heavy lifting ” required from us was to get Jeremy elected, and Labour would become a radical left Party ! Unfortunately, as you say, actually nothing has changed in Labour’s detailed “policy offer” so far – and won’t unless the Left gets its collective act together and intervenes in the , deliberately Byzantine complexity, of Labour’s policy making processes. That Labour still has no alternative policy to academisation is beyond pathetic.

  2. Mervyn Hyde (@mjh0421) says:

    I do endorse what John Penny has said, we need a bottom up strategy for all our policies, the idea that just because we have Jeremy at the top that everything will work out as we should expect, is wishful thinking.

    We need to organise, not just at our local branch level but throughout our counties as well.

    Excellent motion, I will forward it on to a Local campaigner that headed the anti-Academies in the Guardian.

    And will promote it locally throughout the county.

  3. John Penney says:

    I notice that in some of the text of your excellent motion, David, that the recent purely tactical retreat on forced Academisation by the Tories (They intend to secure the same end by stealth – destroying local authority funding streams for education), hasn’t been absorbed into your narrative. Anyone using your motion as a model, will need to update this aspect, as I did.

    1. David Pavett says:

      You are right. I wrote the motion and the article before the u-turn. I added a line or to afterwards but could go into detail. So yes, it would be appropriate to adapt.

      The result of the u-turn is to leave Labour’s weak line on academies exposed. In fact Labour is fully on board for the transformation by stealth that you mention. It’s not what Corbyn ir those who support him want but the right-wing is still largely in control if the policy process. That’s why we need a properly organised debate on education with all contending views clearly stated. I have no doubt that we would win. Most Labour members want what we want and that is why the right does not want such a debate.

  4. Alan Tait says:

    Other Labour ideas have included the Open University – great – and university tuition fees – opening the door in ways that were very predictable to the Tory commoditisation of Higher Education. We need a rethink on Higher Education, and on lifelong learning which has gone right out of focus but is essential for skills, for citizenship and for individual wellbeing.

    1. David Pavett says:

      Agreed. The OU was an important contribution. I should have said that I was referring to school education.

  5. Andy F says:

    The NPF is unusable to create policy, and deliberately so. Corbyn needs to get it abolished and the unions should help him. It is the body that repeatedly voted for the use of the private sector in the NHS i.e. NHS privatisation, with all the unions going along with it

  6. C MacMackin says:

    Just thought I should point out that there are one or two typos in your motion which hopefully can be corrected before you bring it forward to your branch. In particular, you refer to “The Conservation’s outright victory” rather than “The Conservative’s outright victory”. I thought I’d caught another one somewhere, but couldn’t find it again.

  7. Bazza says:

    Some argue in a capitalist society education is functional; through the narrow competiton of exams (elaborate memory tests) a ‘Wheat’ and a ‘Chaff’ is decided. So millions of young people are made to feel special and millions of others are made to feel failures.
    Some people even openly say that they are ‘thick’ and tragically this can stay with some people for all of their lives.
    And of course with Neo-Liberalism we now have the marketisation of education; it could be argued the new academy chain managers know the price of everything and the value of nothing!
    When I was a young working class man in my 20’s I joined Labour and it took me about 6 months or more to speak at a meeting.
    And I always remember this working class man coming to a meeting and saying we should have free public transport and the other members present (including experienced Councillors) all laughed at him; I never saw him again and it wasn’t until years later that I realised that this man was a visionary.
    We need an education which serves the needs of working class/working people and the type of society and World that we want to see.
    So perhaps we start by getting rid of all these crap SATs and tests and trust teachers.
    Education should be about learning and fun!
    Have in course assessment which tells you more about developing human beings and offers continuous feedback so students can be shown how to improve their practice and we nurture school students as tomorrow’s critical thinkers.
    Have Democratic Schools and locally accountable schools overseen by democratic local authorities and elect governers (with a say for parents) by the whole community in the catchment areas.
    With public schools and private schools abolish charitable status and all tax reliefs and subsidies and let the rich parents pay the true market rate.
    They seem to believe that “Welfare is tyranny” for the poor and therefore can’t complain or is the upper class welfare state ok for them?
    And Free HE and Free FE plus bring back the Educational Maintenance Alowance and have critical thinking elements in all vocational courses plus technical college courses.
    And reform universities so they are more democratic so senates are elected by all staff then the senate selects 6 candidates for Vice Chancellor (of which at least 3 should be women) then all staff elect a VC from the 6. And a living wage for all staff and 50:50 male/female representation on all senior committees plus VC salary linked to CEO’s LAs and same percentage increases as staff.
    Oh and in the international as well as giving solar panels to the World’s poor for their roofs (for free energy) give them free laptops so they can access free MOOCs (massive open on-line courses) with audio versions (for the blind) and subtitles (for the deaf) plus foreign language subtitles so they are accessible to all and are a potential route out of poverty.
    We need education systems globally that promote creativity and critical thinking and which serve our needs and the type of World we want.
    P.S. I have sent my ideas to the National Policy Forum but will they laugh at me?

  8. Peter Rowlands says:

    An excellent motion, although I shan’t be moving it as here in Wales schools are still controlled by local authorities. The problem is that despite an affiliated organisation, the SEA, specifically concerned with education, the left, and indeed the whole of the party just lacks interest in what is a vital area and one we must come to grips with.Let us hope that this motion helps.

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