I recently attended the AGM of Wiltshire branch of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) at the Angel Hotel in Chippenham, which was an opportunity for a constructive dialogue about the Labour Party’s education policy. Education is a devolved matter, and my remarks refer to policy in England.
The basic facts behind Labour’s commitment to education are impressive. Between 1997 and 2010 there were 36000 more teachers, 172000 more teaching assistants, and 1100 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 100000 workers improve their skills, and therefore benefiting both themselves and their employers. In addition, over 3000 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.