Policy Exchange’s John Blake comments on Labour’s education proposals, in the TES

May 19, 2017

This article was featured on TES

Ambiguous radicalism is the tone of Labour’s proposals in the manifesto published yesterday: there is not actually much in it, on education at least, that would have looked glaringly out of place in a New Labour manifesto.

Indeed, the document even doffs its cap to its predecessor government’s educational programme with a reference to “examples of best practice, such as Labour’s London Challenge”. Although good luck sharing London Challenge’s best practice: no educational conference is complete without a reference to how successful London Challenge was, nor without at least 95 conflicting explanations for why this should have been, and its impact has yet to be replicated elsewhere.

However, some reading-between-the-lines quickly reveals some potential for stark breaks with Labour’s recent educational policy: schools are to be “democratically accountable” (usually code in left-wing educational world for “run by your local council”) and there shall be “joined-up admissions policies across local schools…to simplify the admissions process” (the most obvious targets for such ‘simplification’ being faith and selective schools).

But there is a certain sense of caution here, also suggested by there being only a “consultation” on teacher sabbaticals and industry placements – such a discussion might yield interesting results, and greater flexibility in the shape of the teachers’ working week and general career path is a sensible road to explore, but this is not a statement of revolutionary intent.

Manifesto meeting may have produced a truce

The boldest policy, and certainly the most headline-grabbing in this section, is the abolition of university fees. Stories of the clause V meeting at which the various nodes of Labour policy creation coagulate together to birth the manifesto suggested shadow education secretary Angela Rayner (pictured) went toe-to-toe with shadow chancellor John McDonnell in a bid to get less money on higher education and more for early years.

Judging from the document produced, they agreed a truce, since fee abolition makes up the entirety of the section on universities and there’s plenty of expanded stuff on pre-school provision too.

Unfortunately, the solutions in both areas are lacking: the problems in the university sector require not fee abolition but more variation in fees to better reflect the differing quality and career-impact of the courses on offer, while two decades’ focus on early years as the answer to all available problems has obscured the necessity to address problems as they arise, as well as at source.

There are other areas where we need more detail of how the ideas contained here will be delivered. To take just one example, reducing class sizes for all 5, 6 and 7-year olds to “less than 30” will play merry hell with schools whose timetables, teacher deployment and facilities are built around classes of 30 – where will the extra child from each class go?

If this is indeed a map “Towards A National Education Service”, it is one with less guidance than might be considered ideal – and, I suspect, fewer landmarks than its advocates hoped.

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