27 February 2023

What would Labour’s ‘mission’ for education really look like?


There are good reasons why opposition parties generally don’t put too many detailed policies into the public domain too far away from an election.

Circumstances may change and make them unaffordable or unachievable, like David Cameron’s ‘share the proceeds of growth’ stuff. Or they might unravel upon inspection and cause embarrassment, like many of Ed Miliband’s proposals.

Even worse, if they’re any good they’ll just get nicked by whoever’s in government – as seems to be happening with Labour’s proposal to double the number of training places for doctors.

So it’s entirely understandable that Keir Starmer’s ‘Five Missions For A Better Britain’ are light on detail. Take his stonkingly vague ‘mission’ for education.

Break down the barriers to opportunity at every stage, for every child, by reforming the childcare and education systems, raising standards everywhere, and preparing young people for work and life.

In fairness, Labour says that each mission will eventually get a ‘route map’ with specific goals and timelines, but for this particular area I don’t think we need to wait for that to have a good idea as to what Labour will do.

Why? Well, nowadays Starmer’s Senior Advisor is Peter Hyman, one of my educational heroes. He gave up the glamour of Tony Blair’s Number 10 for the grind of teaching in state schools, before setting up his own school in a pretty deprived part of east London.

I will always respect Peter because where most just shout from the sidelines he actually climbed into the arena and got his hands dirty. This, along with his writing and campaigns on education over the years, means that we know in quite some detail what he thinks schools are for and how they should operate – and thus the kind of things he’ll probably be recommending to the Labour leader.

His ideas are also pretty much the opposite of what the last decade of school reform has shown to work best. The last decade has seen England rise up the international education rankings, off the back of the Government’s push for a knowledge-rich curriculum and traditional subjects, more rigorous exams, the adoption of systematic synthetic phonics, and so on.

Meanwhile Hyman has stuck to his belief that interdisciplinary projects, group work, continuous teacher assessment and ‘digital portfolios’ are the way to go. He stated this in the 2000s as an advisor and teacher, the 2010s as a Head, and most recently as part of the ‘Rethinking Assessment’ commission.

So although Labour have proposed literally nothing substantial on education policy – aside from taxing private school fees – I’m reasonably confident that this is the kind of thing a Labour government would push if it won the next election. And though the shadow education team may have been telling people privately that they won’t be shaking schools up significantly, the ‘mission’ rolls the pitch for another big overhaul, potentially reversing many of the post-2010 reforms.

I’m not sure that more change is what our schools are crying out for right now. Nor do I think that extra group work or oracy is going to help our kids do better in the basics. But if Labour win a majority, that’s probably what we’ll get.

And come the election I dare say there will be plenty of other educationalists available to help with the counter-reformation. Labour always ends up turning to the teaching unions for people and ideas, and unfortunately they’re still calling for accountability measures to be weakened, Ofsted neutered, time-consuming and gameable coursework revived, generic skills to be taught instead of subjects, and all the other stuff that was tried in the 2000s and found wanting.

The latest edition of the NEU’s magazine has an article arguing against phonics as the best way to teach early reading to kids – even though there are over a million more kids able to read properly in our schools now than if we’d stuck to other ineffective methods. (The same edition also encourages members to self-identify as disabled, and explores how to teach 7 year olds about gender identity and pronouns.)

Now, it happens quite a few union leaders are coming to the end of their terms in time for the next general election. It’s not too much of a stetch to imagine some of them will be up for reversing the Gove and Gibb reforms if Labour do get into government. With Hyman back in Number 10 and a Baron Barton or Baroness Bousted in the Department for Education, Starmer could unleash some of the most effective progressive thinkers and activists to reshape the system in their image.

I might be wrong. Maybe the education mission really will be more steady as she goes. Perhaps Starmer is secretly a fan of Daisy Christodoulou and Dan Willingham. Heck, he might even invite Nick Gibb back as Schools Minister for Life. Let’s see.

But given how things seem to be shaping up, I feel like I’ve seen a picture of the future under Labour, and it’s a boot stamping on a GCSE History certificate – for ever.

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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.