7 July 2023

Starmer’s education ‘mission’ raises more questions than it answers


I wondered aloud back in February what Labour’s ‘mission’ for education would look like. Yesterday we finally found out. And for the most part it’s pretty thin gruel.

Labour has done an excellent job of engaging significant parts of the sector in recent times. I know quite a few really great people who have been involved in discussions with the shadow education team. They all felt that the politicians understood which bits of the current set-up were best left alone, which needed tweaking, and which should be overhauled.

But listening to Keir Starmer’s speech and looking at the mission document, it’s pretty clear that while Labour has been talking to the right people, it hasn’t necessarily been listening.

It’s also clear who is in charge of education policy, and it’s not Bridget Phillipson but Peter Hyman, Starmer’s senior adviser.

Hyman is one of my heroes. I have a very different view to him as to what makes a great education, and the part schools play in this. But he left the Westminster bubble to work on the front line. He also put his metaphorical money where his mouth is and opened School 21, a free school built on the things he believed. That takes guts, and he’ll have my eternal respect for it.

As he’s taken the time to write books, organise commissions, and open a school, we’ve got a good idea as to what he thinks about stuff. And yesterday’s announcements bear all the hallmarks of that thinking.

Hence we have a focus on ‘oracy’, something which Hyman has long championed as key to unleashing children’s creativity and potential. Hence too the dry-sounding but hugely consequential Curriculum and Assessment Review – he literally set up a ‘commission’ to make the case for reforms that undo all of those of the last decade and effectively scrap GCSEs as we know them.

This review will overhaul the National Curriculum and how kids are tested. Already you can hear the sound of every campaign and interest group licking their lips at the prospect of getting their pet cause included, especially as one of the review’s principles is ‘a curriculum that reflects the issues and diversities of our society, ensuring every child is represented’. If you thought schools were already pretty ‘woke’ in what they taught kids, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Educational publishers and other hangers on will also be excited at the prospect of schools having to buy a load more textbooks and resources to deliver the new National Curriculum, especially as Labour has also confirmed that ALL schools will have to follow it, unlike now where academies (around half of schools) can do their own thing.

So in key regards we now know who’s in charge of education policy, and therefore what to expect if Labour gets into power. Some of it is pretty ‘meh’, and some of it, like the curriculum and assessment review, could be pretty damaging.

However, what’s really striking is how incredibly vague the party’s commitment are, even this far into Starmer’s leadership.

  • ‘Recruit over 6,500 new teachers to fill vacancies and skills gaps across the profession’ – sounds amazing. How though?
  • ‘Labour will put specialist mental health professionals in schools’ and ‘introduce 1:1 mentors for children in Pupil Referral Units’ – where will they find and train these staff? 
  • ‘Delivering new childcare places’ – again, sounds great. But beyond ‘remove legislative barriers to local authorities opening new childcare provision’, there are no details. (By the way, councils aren’t exactly sloshing in the cash needed to do this. And these are the most expensive types of provision to run, and they require graduate nursery teachers to staff, of which there already aren’t enough…)

If I was still a teacher and this mission was work from one of my pupils, I’d probably give it a B for effort and C overall. Nice ideas, but they need more evidence and explanation.

None of this is really a huge surprise. As any teacher or student will tell you, group projects are hard and stressful to pull off, and usually someone has to wade in and do the heavy lifting to get it done in time. Poor Peter probably had to pull an all-nighter on Wednesday to get everything finished for yesterday morning.

So we still need Labour to explain how they’ll achieve their aims and pay for everything – and there’s only so many times they can spend the ‘windfall’ from taxing private school fees…

But the direction of travel is clear: roll back many of the successful reforms of the past decade, remove schools’ autonomy over who they can employ and what they can teach, and do it all with minimal extra cash. It’s not what I’d choose, but if they win the next election it’ll be their right to do it. And people won’t be able to say they weren’t warned – Hyman couldn’t have been clearer if he tried.

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Mark Lehain is Head of Education at the Centre for Policy Studies.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.