This autumn marks twenty-one years since Tony Blair’s famous pledge on the priorities of the government he would lead: “education, education, and education”. As that promise comes of age, I have been looking at how the Tories are today failing a fresh generation of our children, and thinking about what Labour might do in government to repair the damage and renew our commitment to education.
Over the last seven years the Tories have comprehensively remade the education system in England. Whatever their intentions, the results have not provided much evidence of a coherent or consistent plan, but instead led to the wholesale vandalism of existing systems and structures. For too many years now we have seen an extraordinary focus on the pursuit of novelty and variety, rather than a concentration on standards, quality and improvement for all schools. It has been an approach more fitting for a toddler’s toy box than for public administration.
Predictably, the government’s fascination with the governance and workings of individual schools means ministers have taken their eye off the ball on the wider issues within the sector: the educational forest goes unseen, as they concentrate on the workings of the trees. One of the most challenging aspects of that for Labour politicians is the growing attainment gap between children from poorer and wealthier homes – a significantly bigger problem for areas like my constituency than it is for London. Yet the fact that the capital has successfully overcome similar problems in the recent past convinces me that this is an issue that government could fix if the right policies were in place.
According to a report published by IPPR North last year, the ‘early years gap’ between children from poorer and wealthier homes is almost twice as large in the north as it is in London. Even schools judged to be ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted are struggling to tackle this attainment gap, with less than 3 per cent of secondary schools in the north managing to eradicate it by the time children finish their education. Whilst the most disadvantaged northern pupils are left behind, their wealthier classmates reap the benefits of higher education and the employment opportunities that follow. As a result, regions like the north east are faced with a significant and growing skills gap that will make it ever harder to build an economy that can compete on a global stage.
The extent to which schools in northern England are falling behind the rest of the country is shocking. In the South and East 84 per cent of secondary schools are judged ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted, while in the North and Midlands it is just 72 per cent. Similarly, in 2014-15 only 34 per cent of disadvantaged students attending schools in northern England achieved five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C (including English and maths), compared to a national average for disadvantaged students of 37 per cent, and a figure of 48 per cent in London.
Theresa May’s flagship educational policy of reintroducing grammar schools will only make these problems worse. Turning one local school into a grammar has the effect, slowly but surely, of making all the other schools secondary moderns – of entrenching and sanctifying inequality rather than tackling it. I had rather hoped that the independent review published by Sir Nick Waller last November to inform the government’s northern powerhouse schools strategy would produce something more promising, but I was left disappointed. There is much that is sensible, but the proposals for change, such as an unfunded new teacher training programme and demands that northern schools offer a stretching curriculum, fail to reflect the scale of the challenge. Most disappointing of all was the review’s recommendation that multi-academy trusts were key to driving up educational standards in the north, which fuels my concern that the £70 million of new funding allocated to the strategy will simply be used to expand the academies project instead of supporting existing schools. Yet again, the Tories are focused on structures rather than standards, even though we all know that structural reform is only part of the story.
What was, however, most interesting about the report was discovering a somewhat reluctant, and perhaps inadvertent, admission that the government knows this as well. Buried on page 39 of the accompanying literature review, the authors state that:
“There is considerable variation in performance between different multi-academy trusts, and between local authorities, that is greater than the variation between the two groups. Academisation has driven greater improvement in some parts of the country and in some previously underperforming schools, but ‘structural reform can only do so much.’”
There it is: the admission that the variation in the educational outcomes of different schools in England cannot be explained as primarily to do with their governance. If only this intellectual honesty were more common among Tory ministers.
The reality of course is that what we need is simple: more investment in schools and teaching. This will be more important than ever in a post-Brexit world, but instead all we get from ministers is smoke and mirrors. Last December, the education secretary Justine Greening announced the government’s proposed national funding formula for schools, which she claimed would put an end to the historical postcode lottery in school funding. In passing, I am always amused when the Conservatives pretend to decry postcode lotteries in our public services, while at the same time busily announcing plans to hand over responsibility for key NHS resource allocation decisions to a patchwork quilt of metro mayors. On the same day that this ‘fairer’ funding model was unveiled, however, the National Audit Office published a report warning that schools in England are under growing financial pressure from rising pay-related costs and the government’s failure to protect funding per pupil from increases in inflation. In fact, despite boasts from ministers that the overall schools budget is protected, funding per pupil will actually fall in real terms by 2020 as pupil numbers continue to rise. It’s all very well not reducing the schools budget, but if there are more children, that means less funding for each. This is not an especially mathematically challenging proposition.
Instead of giving schools the funds they need to deal with these additional costs, the Department for Education expects them to find £3 billion of efficiency savings over the next three years – that’s 8 per cent of the total schools budget. After so many years of “efficiency savings”, asserting that more are possible is rapidly becoming a species of make-believe. The reality is that this is a cut. Schools have not experienced this level of reduction in spending power since the mid-1990s. I remember those days all too well: I was at school myself then. Crumbling schools, over-stretched teachers and even the most basic of resources in short supply. It is not the future I want for my children and those of my constituents.
That’s why during a recent inquiry into the financial sustainability of schools by the Public Accounts Committee, I warned senior civil servants that their demands for savings on such a scale risk triggering an NHS-style financial crisis in the school sector. Headteachers say that they are already struggling to balance their budgets and urgently need more teachers, yet they have not received any advice from the government about how to manage with less money while protecting educational outcomes. Since three-quarters of a typical school’s spending is on staff costs, it’s hard to see how they will cope without cutting subjects, increasing class sizes, or reducing the teaching support staff who make such a difference to our children’s life chances, especially in deprived communities. With schools in northern England already lagging behind, these cuts will also fatally undermine any effort to rebalance the economy away from London.
Labour MPs are not alone in worrying about the impact that the new funding formula will have on our schools. In recent weeks, there have been signs of a revolt brewing on the Tory backbenches as the full implications of how much money schools in their constituencies are set to lose begins to sink in. After the second stage of the public consultation period ends in March, I sincerely hope that the government will change course and give schools the cash injection they need. Whatever happens, Labour needs to make it clear to the public that the Tories have abdicated responsibility for tackling entrenched educational inequality in this country. This may come as no surprise to many voters, but we also need to show them what an incoming Labour government would do differently to narrow the divide. That means learning from our past successes and failures, as well as attacking the Tories for failing today’s children.
One of Labour’s great successes in government was the London Challenge. Launched in 2003, it adopted a collaborative approach to breaking the link between deprivation and attainment at school by introducing a peer-to-peer support system that enabled middle and senior school leaders to share best practice. The combination of good leadership, improved teaching quality and additional support for teacher training that the programme introduced contributed to increased teacher retention rates and the recruitment of highly qualified new teachers. The result was a dramatic improvement in the performance of inner-city schools in London during the last decade, with pupils on free school meals there now 19 per cent more likely to exceed the national average of five A*-C grades in their GCSEs than children from similar backgrounds outside the capital. When the scheme was extended to Manchester and Birmingham in 2008 as the City Challenge, similar improvements followed.
Despite the fact that London is now the gold standard for educational outcomes for disadvantaged pupils, this approach was brought to an abrupt halt in 2011 when Michael Gove abandoned the Challenge programmes in favour of his weakly-evidenced obsession with structural reform. A focus on what works was replaced with an aggressive free-market approach focused on ‘free schools’ and academies. Five years on, many northern schools are now suffering from the same chronic problems that affected inner-city London schools twenty years ago. In fact, educational inequality has now become so entrenched that I fear extra funding alone – vital though it is – will not be enough to undo the damage.
The world has changed, of course, since the London Challenge was first introduced, so there is little point in simply advocating the same approach today that a previous generation of Labour politicians designed almost fifteen years ago. Instead, I want government and local councils to learn from the successes of Labour’s Challenge schemes and adapt them to the world we live in today. For example, we have a much better understanding now of the correlation between early education and outcomes in later life than when Labour was last in power. Poorer pupils are already way behind their wealthier classmates by the time they enter the education system, so we need to consider how to close the ‘early years gap’ that puts them at such a disadvantage before their formal education has even started.
The most obvious way to do this is through greater investment in early years services such as Sure Start, which have faced significant cuts since 2010. According to a six-year study by Oxford University published at the end of 2015, Sure Start has improved parents’ confidence and children’s social skills, particularly among the very poorest families, and enhanced home learning environments. There are now 763 fewer Sure Start centres than in 2010 – a reduction that can only exacerbate the increase in educational inequality in the north of England. I acknowledge that some Sure Start centres were rightly criticised for not doing enough to reach the most excluded families, but surely the answer is to make them better, not to take them away. There is a seductive mantra that the state should “do less, better”; our ambition instead should be to “do all that is needed, better”. From where we are now, that is often quite a lot more.
We also need to recognise that the current system of public service provision often fails to reflect the realities of modern family structures and employment patterns. In today’s climate of low-paid, insecure and unpredictable work, many parents of young children in disadvantaged communities are juggling at least two jobs each to keep themselves afloat. As a result, they often find it very difficult to access local services for their children, most of which still operate on a traditional Monday to Friday basis. To tackle this problem, the next Labour government should seek to reform the working culture of childcare and early education services so that parents can access them at more convenient times, even if that means outside of traditional working hours. It should also replicate the collaborative approach pioneered by the London Challenge by introducing a regional framework for improving leadership, teaching quality and teacher support at early years level. This would help to increase the number of skilled, qualified childcare and early years education workers, and enable better integration with local primary schools.
The government talks a good game on the so-called ‘northern powerhouse’, but its funding decisions tell the real story about how much ministers care about closing the attainment gap. There are certainly better ways to give northern children the best start in life than the empty rhetoric of a former chancellor’s gimmicky pet project. If we really want to light a fire under the economy of northern England, we need an approach to tackling educational inequality that takes into account every stage of a child’s development, including the critical early years. That means listening to those who work with our children every day, investing properly in our teachers and schools, and implementing evidence-based policies that work. Only Labour can offer the poorest children in the north a route out of poverty and hope that a better future is possible.