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Labour’s consultation paper on ‘Education and children’: missed opportunities and misguided priorities
Labour has circulated an 8 page ‘draft consultation paper’ called Education_and_children which seems likely to be the basis for its 2015 election manifesto for education. It contains some ideas which should be supported and some which are far too vague to know what they would mean. It also is notable for its silence about many of the key policies of Gove, which means that they are likely to continue under a Labour government.
Education for economic growth
The dominant theme of the paper is the need to overcome the skills deficit which holds back economic growth. The solution is vocational education for the ‘forgotten 50 per cent’ who do not go to university. Labour plans ‘a new gold standard Technical Baccalaureate for young people, acting as a stepping stone into an apprenticeship, further study or skilled work.’ (p5). There are five problems with this argument. First, while it is true that there are areas of skills shortage, it is also true that many young people are over-qualified for the jobs they are doing, or cannot find a job at all. (See The Great Reversal, Young people, Education and Equality in a Declining Economy, )
Second, what the Tech Bacc actually comprises isn’t explained, apart from saying it will include English and maths to 18. Is it a new qualification or simply the packaging and relabelling of existing courses? What course content is envisaged? What is ‘vocational education’? How general, how job-specific? What non-vocational education will accompany it? These are familiar questions because Labour is recycling a policy which has been tried before, most recently with New Labour’s Diplomas, and failed.
Third, at present there are far too few quality apprenticeships, as against low quality, short-term fake ones, compared to the number of applicants. Labour promises more. ‘We will …expect employers to create significantly more apprenticeships in exchange for giving them more control over skills funding and standards.’ (p8). But the reality is there are a million young people unemployed and there is no chance that employers will offer enough new apprenticeships for more than a small minority of these, unless Labour adopts far more radical economic policies, including a massive investment programme in socially useful job creation and a shorter working week to spread jobs around, neither of which it has any intention of doing.
Four, the implication of the paper is that the Tech Bacc and more apprenticeships will lead to more jobs. This is a fallacy, as Allen and Ainley demonstrate. The causes of high youth unemployment are not a skills deficit, they are structural – the decline in the need for youth labour as a result of fundamental changes in the UK economy – and they require radical economic policies to tackle them.
Five, what is being proposed, far from being a common over-arching qualification such as Tomlinson envisaged, is a new bi-partite system which will powerfully reinforce patterns of social class inequality. There will be a division at 16 – probably reaching back to age 14 – with the ‘academic’ 50% staying on in the sixth form or sixth form college to take A Levels and enter higher education (where they will continue to pay high fees: Labour is only promising ‘that repayments are related more closely to ability to pay.’ (p9)). Meanwhile, the ‘vocational’ 50% will transfer to FE colleges, which are to be transformed into ‘new specialist Institutes of Technical Education…licensed to deliver Labour’s Tech Bacc’ (p5), leading to a proper apprenticeship for the few and to a low-pay, low-skill, casualised job for the many.
‘Standards not structures’
The paper states that ‘The Government has narrowly focused on what schools are called, rather than how they teach. Putting that right is the central task for the next Labour Government.’ (p3). This is a re-run of the familiar ‘standards not structures’ argument of New Labour. It has the advantage for Labour of enabling it to ignore, in other words to accept, the continuation of Gove’s policies on academies and local authorities (see below). Labour ‘will prioritise what matters most in our schools; driving up standards with a relentless focus on the quality of teaching.’ (p3) with four strategies. First, no unqualified teachers. This should be supported. Second, more professional development. Good, provided it is funded to make time available. Third, ‘revalidation’, i.e. time-limited licences. Not necessary. Fourth, career progression in the classroom. Yes, but again, is there additional funding available?
But the key thing here is not what Labour is saying but what it isn’t saying. Not a word about what really holds back teachers – the performance targets that dominate teachers’ lives; Ofsted, which needs replacing by a new model of evaluation, accountability and support; SATs and other iniquitous forms of assessment such as in the early years. And not a word about the need for creative teaching for creative learning. In fact the only word about the curriculum, apart from the Tech Bacc, is a promise to free all schools from the national curriculum, which makes nonsense of the idea of a national curriculum.
Local democracy and local authorities
Another of the striking omissions in the paper concerns local authorities. In fact, astonishingly, the words don’t appear in the paper at all, or even the fashionable get-out term ‘the middle tier’. The silence may be because Blunkett is producing a review of the role of local authorities. But what it signals is that local elected government is not central to Labour’s education thinking. So the paper says ‘local areas’ will be able to decide admissions policies (pp6 and 10) but it doesn’t say what mechanism, what institutional arrangements, will enable that to happen. A repeated theme of the paper is that ‘Labour will empower local communities to have a greater say about education in their area’ (p6) – although only one issue which they will be able to have a say about is specified: ‘local communities will have a greater say in the new schools opening up in their area.’ (p7). But again, no mention of the role of a local authority in coordinating and representing the community’s views. Similarly, the paper emphasises the need for ‘the rigorous local accountability that is crucial to driving up standards.’ (p6), but makes no mention of the role of the local authority as the body to which schools are accountable and its responsibility for ensuring that support is provided for schools that need it.
Academies and free schools
The silence about local authorities means there is no commitment to create a fully inclusive local school system by incorporating academies and free schools into it. There is a deafening silence about academies. They will continue as they are, locally unaccountable, including those run by democratically unaccountable privately-owned chains. Labour will not permit any new free schools, but there is no commitment to bring existing ones into a radically democratised local authority system. (See Democratising Local School Systems: Participation and Vision, Richard Hatcher)
Why we need to campaign for a new direction for education
There are a few positive proposals in Labour’s paper, e.g. on childcare, which should be supported. But overall it is far from the radical alternative we need to root out Goveism and set the education system on a different track. The paper says little or nothing about some of the key issues, which means that it leaves some of the pillars of Tory education policy intact. And the main proposals it does venture to make, around the ‘forgotten 50%’, are a misconceived re-run of previous failed policies which will deepen the existing social divisions in the education system and the youth labour market. Some on the left have pinned their hopes on influencing Labour to change course, but it is clear now that to achieve more than minor concessions will require mass pressure on Labour from a powerful campaign bringing together teachers and other school workers with parents and the wider public.