5 May 2023

The Tories have revolutionised education – would Labour turn back the clock?


There aren’t many benefits to being an opposition party but one of the few is the opportunity to think deeply about what you’d do when you get back into government.

Without the burdens or media spotlight that comes with power, opposition gives people a chance to get a clear idea of their priorities. It also means they have the space to consult widely and think more freely about how they’d enact things.

We’ve not had a change of governing party for a while but Labour pre-1997 and the Conservatives before 2010 invested huge amounts of time and effort into preparing detailed plans so that they could hit the ground running. 

Of course, much in these plans didn’t survive contact with reality, but they gave new ministers a fighting chance of setting the direction and pushing some stuff through before the daily media cycle and various other pressures took over.

In the case of Michael Gove and education, lots of the things he and his team proposed whilst in opposition did actually came to pass: free schools, mass academisation, how phonics was taught and assessed, National Curriculum and exam reform, changes to inspection and accountability, and so on.

Significantly, nearly all of the above were identified and fleshed out well before the election in 2010. There was not just a clarity about his philosophy and what he wanted to do but also how it would be implemented. Indeed, the bulk was already determined and detailed 18 months or so before, hence Gove was able to go into them in depth in interviews, op-eds, or speeches throughout 2009.

We’re at the same stage out from a general election now, and with a Labour government looking likely sometime in 2024 we haven’t much idea as to what they specifically want to do, beyond Keir Starmer’s five ‘missions’. And even where specific announcements are made, there is usually next to no detail as to how they’ll be made to happen, beyond not being nasty or incompetent like the dastardly Tories.

Take education, again. Last weekend Bridget Phillipson announced in her speech at a union conference that Labour would ensure that pupils are taught by specialists in each subject. Can’t argue with that; it’s a fine ambition. There are indeed too few maths and physics specialists teaching maths and physics lessons in our schools, and any government should want to change this.

However, she didn’t explain at all how she would deliver this worthy aim. We’ve not had enough specialist teachers in the country for all subjects for all children probably, well, ever. And most countries face similar teacher recruitment and retention challenges to England

So if Labour has found a way to crack a previously uncrackable problem then I for one am all ears. As will be anyone else with an interest in education. But details came there none, which makes me wonder if the announcement was just about headlines and vibes.

And perhaps that’s fair enough, especially given how well Labour appears to be doing in the polls. Why go into policy detail now if it risks criticism or being nicked by the government?

But if they’re serious about making a difference if they get into government, and I genuinely believe they are, then they need to get to Gove 2009 levels of preparedness ASAP. It was this attention to detail regarding implementation that enabled so many reforms to start in the first few years in office. It’s also why schools have come on so much since 2010, especially when you compare them to many other aspects of the public sector.

Gove, Gibb and co. had a clear set of beliefs about the purpose of education, and thus a firm set of priorities to work up. However, there was a strong streak of pragmatism in their approach too. They didn’t reject things just because they’d been introduced by Labour. In fact, they were only too happy to  emphasise how much they were building on things started by Tony Blair!

Phillipson and her team should be bold like this too. If they can’t yet tell us how they’ll do the things that they say they’ll change, they can at least tell us which important parts of the Conservative reforms they’ll keep.

With that in mind, below is a list of questions about the current set-up that they could answer yes or no to right now.

The shadow education team will surely have a view on the present situation, and knowing the answers to these questions would help schools and families understand what they could expect under a Labour government. Here’s hoping that we get answers to these and other policies sooner rather than later.

Would Labour keep the Reception Baseline Assessment?
Should children be taught to read using only systematic synthetic phonics?
Would Labour keep the Phonics Screening Check?
Would Labour keep the Multiplications Tables Check?
Would Labour continue to publish SATs and exam results down to the school level?
Would Labour review the National Curriculum content at all?
Does Labour think there is too much focus on knowledge in the National Curriculum as it stands?
Would Labour keep the “maths to 18” policy?
Would Labour make it harder for schools to suspend or expel pupils?
Would Local Authorities be given a say in whether a pupil is suspended or expelled under Labour?
Would Labour allow more free schools?
Would Labour continue to fund and support the Early Career Framework for new teachers?
Would Labour retain the national network of Teaching School Hubs?
Would Labour change the content or format of the KS2 assessments?
Would Labour retain the 2030 target for 90% pupils to reach expected standards in reading, writing and maths at KS2?
Will Labour retain the 2030 target to raise the average GCSE maths and English grade to a 5?
Would Labour continue to fund and support Oak National Academy?
Would Labour keep GCSEs?
Would Labour introduce coursework or controlled assessment to GCSEs?
Does Labour think Progress 8 as it stands is a good measure of school performance?

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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.