11 January 2024

You can’t trust Labour on education


Labour’s election plan is clear. Be as bland as possible and stick to a script full of good intentions on business, economic growth and creating jobs. They will stay clear of Brexit and Europe, culture war issues (like how to define a woman), and big questions of public service reform (will or won’t they encourage private provision within the NHS). There is one exception however: Keir Starmer and Bridget Phillipson have generously given us a peak into Labour’s proposed education policy. It is, unfortunately, desperately concerning.

First let me paint a fair representation of where the English education system is today: 89% of all state schools in England are rated good or outstanding by Ofsted. In 2010 that figure was just 68%. In 2022/23, 79% of Year 1 children taking the phonics screening check met the expected standard. In 2011/12 (when the check was introduced) just 58% of children passed. More children are meeting the expected standard in reading, writing, maths combined, compared to seven years ago. Before Covid, Key Stage 2 reading and maths scores had improved by 10% in just three years. Disadvantaged students were doing better too, with the disadvantage gap index falling from 3.34 in 2010 to 2.91 in 2019. Ofqual have toughened up on standards at both GCSE and A Level, countering years of grade inflation. In 2023 more students received a grade-4 or higher across all subjects, than had done in 2019. And then of course you come to PISA results, which show Britain’s comparative performance against international competitors improving in recent years. 

Of course, Covid had a hugely damaging impact on children – but generally, we can be happy with the vast improvements to the English education system in the last decade. Any sensible education expert will note that these improvements stem from the reforms introduced under the Coalition Government – to crack down on ill-discipline in schools, to free head teachers from local authority oversight, the emphasis on a knowledge rich curriculum, and finally, the all-important introduction of phonics and a general focus on evidence based pedagogical practices.

It is deeply concerning, therefore, that the Labour Party have begun talking about separating themselves from some of these huge successes. Indeed, if you listened to Bridget Phillipson’s speech in London on Tuesday, you would have thought the English education system was a global disgrace. She described a ‘joyless’ life in schools, ‘stagnating standards’ in the classroom, and a workforce ‘fed-up’. 

In July of last year Kier Starmer spoke of an ‘outdated curriculum’ which he wanted to broaden to incorporate digital skills and more creativity. Sounds good, until you realise this is a return to the failed dogma of the last Labour government. Back then Blair and Brown had a fascination with progressive education techniques that centred on the child developing their own understanding of topics, as opposed to accumulating real knowledge. Learning about the Tudors became a class of dressing up as Henry VIII and role-playing mock executions. Sounds sweet but few children left school with any actual objective knowledge of that period in history. 

Kier also said he’s baffled by the debate around the relative importance of skills and knowledge, arguing that you need both. That is certainly true, but you can’t magic skills into existence without knowledge. You can’t think creatively about history or English, or maths or biology, unless you have a strong foundational knowledge in each of those subjects. Knowledge leads on to skill. They are not, as Kier believes, equally important.

Even more concerning than Labour’s love of fluffy learning, is there dislike of exams and assessment. Any expert will tell you that for children to learn facts, and exercise the ability to retain and retrieve information, they need to be tested. They need to be tested regularly and assessed on whether they can recall what they’ve learned. Labour wants to look at bringing in ‘multimodal assessments’ taking away the emphasis on end-of-year written exams. I’m interested in mid-year and mid-term assessments, but what Kier and Bridget are describing is a move away from exams all together to teacher evaluated grades. And we all know how disastrous that was in 2020.

This is all symptomatic of an anti-intellectualism that has pervaded left wing educational thing for generations. It is rooted in the idea that schools are miserable and authoritarian, knowledge is increasingly unnecessary, and exams are unfair and divisive. The late progressive educationalist Sir Ken Robinson said modern education ‘alienates kids’ who ‘don’t see any purpose in going to school’ because it ‘marginalises’ children and crushes their creativity. Is that true for the 43 students from Harris Academy in Westminster who received Oxbridge offers? Or for Brampton Manor, an academy in East London whose student population is 98% minority ethnic and has a higher Oxbridge acceptance rate than Eton? It certainly isn’t the case for the Michaela Community School where discipline and manners are sacrosanct, and one-third of pupils got a 9 in their GCSEs, with 98% achieving grades 9-4 in at least 5 GCSEs. 

If you want an idea of what school performance will look like under Labour, check out School 21, the school founded and led by Kier Starmer’s education adviser Peter Hyman. Less than half of students achieved a grade 5 in English and Maths GCSE, the attainment 8 score is below both the local and national average, and Ofsted recently graded them Requires Improvement.

The recent PISA results are clear, Britain is starting to become one of the world’s outstanding centres for public education. This is because we parted with past practices that continued to fail children, predominantly disadvantaged ones, by depriving them of a proper education in an orderly school. Back then middle-class parents would send their children to private school, now there really is no need. If Kier Starmer is hellbent on damaging private education by levying VAT on fees, he’d be better off doubling down on the reforms that have made the British state education system, one of the best in the world. 

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By Patrick Spencer is a former adviser at the Department for Education from 2020-2023.

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