Here we examine the candidates’ policies in detail, topic by topic. We draw on statements by the candidates in the Guardian on 7 July, with some additional points from their statements in the June issue of Education Politics, the journal of the Socialist Educational Association (the Labour Party affiliated body).
Comprehensive education and selective schools
Jeremy Corbyn is unequivocal: ‘I would want all grammars to become comprehensives and to end the 11-plus where it still exists.’
Andy Burnham is against selection but thinks it should be up to local parental ballots to decide whether to keep grammar schools. ‘I don’t believe in selection at all and I don’t like the ever more ingenious ways of skewing admissions criteria to achieve forms of selection. […] But the question is whether to impose an end to selection or to allow true local decisions with ballots that give all parents a proper say. I think it is better to do it at a local level.’
Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall are against selection but think existing grammar schools should remain. Cooper: ‘I think a comprehensive intake is a good thing, but I am not going to say that we should be closing good schools – for example, grammar schools – because I don’t think that is the right approach.’ Kendall: ‘I don’t want any more grammar schools, but I am going to stick with our existing policy: we aren’t going to close any.’
Academies and free schools
Again, Corbyn is unequivocally opposed. ‘I am not a supporter of the principle of free schools and academies, and I would want to bring them all back into the local authority orbit.
Burnham differentiates Tory academy policy from Labour’s. ‘I don’t see the Gove academies as anything like the Labour academies, which were justifiable because these were schools where everything else had failed. Mass academisation – and the centralising side of the Gove reforms – is a very different policy.’ But he says nothing about what he would do about them, or free schools.
Kendall says nothing about academies and would retain good free schools: ‘if there is a free school that is delivering a good education we wouldn’t shut it. But there needs to be a level playing field in terms of funding per pupil and a comprehensive intake.’ And Cooper chooses to avoid the issue entirely.
Corbyn supports the restoration of a local authority system, including integrating academies and free schools. ‘We have to bring it back to a local level, rebuild the family of education, require local authorities to oversee and provide supplementary resources to schools and allow them to build new schools to meet the need for more places.’
Burnham sees an oversight role for local authorities but without incorporating academies and free schools into them. ‘Local authorities need an oversight role in terms of school place planning, admissions, standards and exclusions.’
Cooper speaks of ‘local accountability’ but chooses not to specify what it might mean. We have to wait and see till 2020: ‘the directors of school standards [proposed by David Blunkett’s review of local accountability before the 2015 election] was good but it is too early to say what the situation might be by the time 2020 comes. We’ll need to see what local government and school structures are like by then.’
However, Cooper is in favour of education being handed over from local authorities to the new Combined Authorities. ‘Why should Greater Manchester be in charge of a whole series of other local issues and services, but not education? You have to have good local accountability and if you are going to have combined authorities playing that strong and strategic role in other areas, it is also right that they should do so on education and skills.’
This actually means even less local accountability than there is now, because while local authorities’ role in education is accountable to elected local government through the local council, there is no equivalent at Combined Authority level. So in Greater Manchester, for example, its role in education would be carried out by just eleven people – the ten council leaders and the directly elected mayor – with no Greater Manchester elected assembly to hold them to account.
Kendall promises ‘proper accountability in the system’ but says nothing about what this would mean, apart from the local authority ‘coordinating school places’ and bringing ‘the family of schools together to really improve the quality of education’, without specifying what powers and resources this would entail.
The high level of social inequality in the school system is of course a fundamental issue for a future Labour government. The candidates propose several policies In the SEA journal. Corbyn proposes ‘Universal free childcare.’ Cooper says the real challenge is ‘cracking inequality’ and plans to ‘Reduce child poverty by increasing childcare, increasing the minimum wage and more people on the living wage.’ No details are given of by how much.
Kendall proposes to ‘Widen the career horizons of primary children, especially white working class’ – she gives an example – and ‘to get the best heads and teachers in our most struggling schools.’ No details are given of how. Burnham doesn’t address the issue directly.
Corbyn calls for ‘looking again at the funding of very early pre-school education.’ Kendall says her ‘first priority now would be investing in early years’, and plans to ‘Transform the status and quality of the early years workforce’, though without giving any details. Neither Burnham nor Cooper mention early years provision.
All the candidates advocate a broader curriculum including valuing ‘vocational’ as well as academic qualifications. Cooper wants ‘to broaden our vision of a good education to include wellbeing and the whole child, their happiness and confidence’ and ‘a curriculum to educate young people for the future.’ Kendall wants ‘a broad curriculum that prepares kids for the 21st century, not the 19th century. The Ebacc is far too narrow. Kids need academic and vocational qualifications.’
Corbyn thinks ‘unlocking imagination and potential is the key to human development.’ Burnham ‘would be very open-minded about the idea of a national baccalaureate qualification.’ He ‘would certainly support those headteachers who want to stand up to the government over the compulsory Ebacc [making every child take GCSEs in five government-selected subjects]. It should not be imposed.’
Tests and Ofsted
Corbyn stands for ‘greater freedom to study, fewer tests, discouraging league tables.’ He says bluntly ‘Reform or refound Ofsted.’ In contrast Cooper avoids giving an answer. ‘It would be wrong of me to come up with a specific proposal now about how the school performance measures might cover this broader vision….’ Neither Burnham nor Kendall comment on the issue.
Finally, Corbyn is the only one to comment on teachers’ pay and conditions: a pay rise for teachers and restore the national pay system.
Which candidate’s policies align most closely to those of CASE?
There is general agreement that a Labour government should reject the Tories’ narrow curriculum and should value ‘vocational’ subjects. But on other key issues one candidate, Jeremy Corbyn, stands out for his concrete policies. He unequivocally opposes academies and free schools and Ofsted, he stands for local authorities and teachers’ pay and conditions. Together they mark out a new direction for education policy, they are what the majority of teachers want, and they are entirely practical. They would also be electorally popular – all they would take is political will by a Labour government.
Corbyn is gaining growing support, more than many expected – in spite of being dismissed by the right-wing press. But the odds seem to be on Cooper and Kendall, both of whom by and large accept the framework of the school system that Gove created. Nor is there the slightest indication that they would support teachers and support staff, parents, governors and local communities who will be standing up to Tory policies over the next five years, not just waiting hopefully for the next general election, unlike Jeremy Corbyn who has a consistent track record of support for active campaigns on education and other issues.