Kate Green has education in her blood. Growing up in a household where both of her parents were teachers, she understood very early on in life the difference a good education could make.
“My parents were not from privileged backgrounds, they had come from very impoverished backgrounds in the west of Scotland in the 1920s and 30s when their parents – my grandparents – had known long periods of unemployment and poverty. Education was the route out of that,” she says. “So they were very, very passionate about it as the thing that opens the doors to opportunity. It was really taken for granted that you would absolutely make the most of your education and that every effort would be made to support you to do that.”
Now that she is Labour’s shadow education secretary, Green wants to give every family that same sense of opportunity. “My parents were not unique – every parent is looking for the best for their children and Labour is very aspirational for our children and young people,” she says. “That belief that I grew up with, that I would have access to the best quality education and that that was something to celebrate, is something that I now want to see for every child and young person and for every parent to be confident that their children will have.”
Education has long been one of the touchstones of Labour in power, from the battle for comprehensive education and the establishment of the Open University in the 1960s to New Labour’s famous ‘education, education, education’ mantra in the 1990s. That centrality of education to Labour values is why Green was delighted to take up her current role.
“No Labour politician offered the chance to be our shadow secretary of state for education – and I hope one day our secretary of state – would ever turn down this job,” she says. “It goes to the heart of what we believe in – enabling everyone to make the most of their potential and giving everyone the opportunity of enrichment and enjoyment from their learning.”
“The focus on ‘education education education’ in 1997 not only really spoke to public aspiration and imagination but it led to some really brave and imaginative policy, things like SureStart, things like the London challenge to drive up standards in London schools, and things like the education maintenance allowance that enabled young people from less well-off backgrounds to continue in education,” she adds. “Those were really radical groundbreaking policies and they grew out of this huge priority that was given in government to the importance of education. That’s something we absolutely want to come back into government to do again.”
Some political commentators argued that Green was a surprise choice for the education job, given that she had only had one relatively short stint in the shadow cabinet under Jeremy Corbyn and had only been back in a shadow post for a couple of months under Keir Starmer. Fabian members, of course, were far more familiar with her thanks to her active role in the society in recent years, including her stint as chair. But she’s not the only active Fabian now on the front bench, a development which she sees as good news not just for the Fabian Society but for the Labour party as a whole. “It’s a great opportunity for us to use the Fabian strengths – really detailed well-researched well-evidenced policy thinking to develop ideas that will be life-changing: radical ideas but also very pragmatic policy approaches that have got to be deliverable in government,” she says. “It is really great that the leader of the Labour party and the deputy leader are Fabians, and that right at the heart of our movement, Fabian thinking is understood and appreciated.”
Recent Fabian research, including the work on access to justice and, now, on workers and technology, is proving influential in policy-making, Green adds. “There is an opportunity to take that up a gear now and to look at how the Fabian habit of very careful, very thorough research and policy thinking can begin to help us develop a rich, bold, creative social justice programme for government.”
Exciting as that policy-making process might be, education, just like pretty much everything else, has been dominated this year by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Teachers, support staff, pupils and families have all been telling Green about the pressures of trying to keep everyone safe while still learning. She maintains that it is right schools are open. “I definitely think children should be in school – it’s the best place for them, the best place for their learning and the best place for their socio-emotional wellbeing,” she says. “It’s particularly important for disadvantaged children. We saw in the first national lockdown that although schools were kept open for them, many did not attend. That’s why I think it is really important that we’ve had a return to compulsory education this term and I support that. I also think it’s been really important from a safeguarding point of view – teachers are often the first professionals to pick up signals of a child in trouble.”
Labour would, however, have done things differently, both in the speed of its response and in avoiding the edicts from on high that have characterised this government’s response. “Too often school leaders, childcare providers and college and university principals have been telling me that they would receive guidance late, it would sometimes be contradictory and sometimes very difficult to implement,” Green says. “We would have made sure that we were engaging all the time with the professionals so that there was a collaboration in planning and in implementing plans, so that everyone could work together to come through the Covid crisis.”
The government has seemed unwilling to grasp the scale of the crisis: with attendance figures among the worst in peacetime, she adds, much more should have been done to support schools to keep children in education. Then there is the early years sector, which according to Green, has not had any real attention or support from the government in months. “I’m really concerned that we will see a flight of providers from the sector, and it will be very, very difficult to rebuild that provision and a generation of young people and their parents will suffer as a result,” she says.
Beyond that, many of the immediate problems coronavirus has created have pointed to underlying issues that Labour wants to address. “The short-term pressures are actually highlighting what are going to be the long-term strategic questions too – questions about what kind of exam system you have, that treat children and young people fairly, that test them on what they’re capable of, enable them to demonstrate their abilities and their potential,” she says.
It’s similar too on accountability. “During this term we’ve had Ofsted making informal visits rather than carrying out formal inspections, I think that’s been a good approach. Nobody, other than the government can seriously think it’s a good idea to revert to formal assessments in a few weeks time when schools are still coping with the brunt of the pandemic and high levels of staff and student absence. We need to learn from this term’s experience about how you can use your accountability and inspection regime to support and spread good practice and schools improvement.”
Although she is careful to emphasise that it is still too early to have detailed policies in place, Green is clear that reform of tuition fees is still on Labour’s agenda. “It’s really important that we don’t have students graduating with this psychological burden of enormous and frankly unrealistic debt – much of which never gets paid off so it’s not a particularly good model for the economy either – but which has left our higher education sector with an unsustainable and very, very fragile funding model which has really been cruelly exposed in the Covid pandemic,” she says. “We’ve really got to rethink how we protect that sector and have a fair deal for students.”
And could there be another big area for reform – rolling back the tide on academies and grammar schools or even phasing out private schools? Those in favour of a radical approach were heartened by Green’s appointment: the Labour Against Private Schools group welcomed the news by saying she was the first MP to support its ‘abolish Eton’ campaign. But she insists she is ‘less interested in structures than in what’s going on inside schools and what’s coming out of them’. On private schools, she adds: “Only seven per cent of our children go to private schools and the vast majority of my time in this role and I would say as secretary of state as well, if I go on to do that job, is not going to be spent on the seven per cent of children in private schools, it’s going to be spent on the 93 per cent of children and young people in our state education system and making sure that they get the very best education that they can. Naturally, I would like a funding mechanism that addresses some of the inherent privilege that students in private schools benefit from that students in some of our state schools don’t – things like the smaller class sizes, the access to additional high-quality equipment and learning resources. I do want to see a shift in resources, so that the state sector is benefiting at least equally but actually I would like it to be benefiting better than any privately funded institution because the vast majority of our children are going to be in our state sector.”
As Labour gears up for the hard work of preparing a policy offer to win the next general election, Green is particularly passionate about ensuring early years education and lifelong learning form a core part of that offer. A broad, engaging curriculum also looks set to be a key component in Labour’s plans: a curriculum that prepares learners for the ‘very volatile and uncertain future’ ahead, but which also engages them and reflects their own lived experiences. “It’s about embedding Black history and LGBT identity, making sure that every learner can see their identity reflected and celebrated at every point in the curriculum – which scientists are you learning about in science, which mathematicians, what books are you reading in English or in modern foreign languages, who are the authors, which painters are you looking at, what particular sports personalities are you following?” she says.
Her own experience where, under the Scottish system, she had an extra year at school after her highers, is an inspiration. “That was a wonderful year because it was really the first time that I could pursue the subjects that I really wanted to pursue in the way that I wanted to pursue them – the freeing up of how you could start to think about things, question things, research more deeply into some aspects of what you were learning because they particularly interested you,” she says. “If I could distil that and find a way of making it the essence of the whole learning experience, I think that everyone, whatever their stage in the learning journey, would find that really exciting and enriching. It would be a real springboard for raising standards, ensuring that people continue to participate in learning throughout their life.”
There is a mountain to climb, of course, before Labour will get the opportunity to turn its vision into reality. But Green says there is a huge sense of purpose among Labour parliamentarians after the crushing disappointment of last year’s general election. “I think the shock of the 2019 result sits with all of us – it was traumatising,” she says. “We feel desperate about the millions of voters up and down the country who needed a Labour government, and have now been many years without one, and who have seen their life chances and their wellbeing and prosperity suffer as a result. And so I think there’s a huge sense of determination in the parliamentary party, to understand what it was the voters wanted of Labour, what it was that we weren’t delivering, and to listen to them so that we are able to respond to and develop policy in a way that understands their concerns and their aspirations and their hopes.”
The current government is likely to be just as unequal to the task of steering the post-Covid recovery as it has been to managing the pandemic, Green says. So it falls to Labour to set out over the next few years “a positive, radical, and entirely credible alternative that gives people a sense of hope, a sense that they and their families and communities will have a better future under Labour but that it’s realistic and they can see a roadmap for it”.