When Labour returns to power in 2015 they will inherit an education service that is fractured and competitive. Michael Gove’s great experiment will leave a legacy of individual and chains of academies, free schools, trust schools, maintained schools and everything in between.
The proposed national funding formula will exacerbate the funding shift from schools in poorer to more affluent areas and from north to the south. The well intentioned pupil premium will form a growing proportion of school funding but will have failed, without the introduction of further incentives and drivers, to narrow the gap in attainment between the well heeled and the rest. In 2015 the system will be splintered, the learning gap wider and we will be facing another Tory-manufactured teacher supply crisis.
Labour needs to be ready with the strategy for picking up these very difficult pieces. It is always tempting for incoming governments of whatever colour to say that they are interested in standards not structures and then immediately start meddling with structures – but the last thing that our education system will need in 2015 is for an incoming Labour government to start restructuring.
More than anything, the system needs stability. Stephen Twigg needs to use some of the lessons learnt from Michael Gove’s rear assault on the system and focus reforms through the funding formula and not through statute.
We are all stakeholders in our education system, but the pupils, parents and employers who are most directly affected don’t care what a school is called – so long as it is a good school that delivers good educational outcomes.
Labour needs to take what it inherits and work with it, whilst putting a few well chosen principles and standards in place. For instance, any school that is publicly funded needs to be publicly accountable and all schools have a responsibility to their local communities and to their neighbouring schools.
Government needs to ensure that all funding contracts include clauses that require good and outstanding schools/academies to take responsibility for helping neighbouring, struggling schools and to take an active role in local arrangements for admission, exclusion, SEN and behaviour partnerships. And it needs to enforce those clauses robustly. Schools/academies cannot be allowed to abdicate their role as a focal point in their local communities and their active and positive involvement needs to form part of the inspection regime.
Local authorities have had a hard time recently and whilst they can no longer hold their former role in areas such as school improvement, their continued role needs to be codified and strengthened. As the natural middle tier, their role as champions on behalf of pupils, parents and the community is more crucial now than ever. They need to hold the ring around the educational pinch points of admissions, exclusions, special educational needs and school planning. It is local authorities that should hold the schools capital budget, not the Department for Education (DFE) and certainly not individual schools or academy chains. Proper schools planning at a local level would end the current obscenity of free schools opening up in areas where there are already surplus places, leading ultimately to the closure of existing good schools.
One of Labour’s first tasks needs to be a return to an expert-led curriculum review. I believe that in 2010 the outgoing Labour government had, with the exception of the disaster of the vocational diplomas, just about got the KS4 curriculum right for that time but things move on and so should curriculum reviews. Michael Gove is right when he says that we need rigour in the curriculum and in our examinations but we also need a curriculum for all – that stretches our most able but leaves no child behind.
Stephen Twigg’s Technical Baccalaureate is a good start but we need to learn from those jurisdictions at the top of the international league tables where they recognise that vocational education is a costly but sensible long term investment in our young people and in our economy.
Finally, and perhaps most controversially, I believe that if Labour really wants to get it right they need to tackle the separation of performance management from examination results. A good school, like a good teacher, is one that gets the very best out of all its pupils not just the more able and we have to stop judging the performance of a school on the basis of the cliff-edge five GCSEs at A*- C grade.
Labour needs to engage with schools and parents to agree a contract that provides legally enforced guarantees about what the school will deliver. That will include the very best information on every child’s progress in relation to peers locally and nationally. At the same time, however, the government has to stop publishing GCSE league tables that simply allow mediocre schools to cherry pick pupils. This discourages schools to stretch good pupils and forces weaker schools to thrash around for courses that deliver points for GCSEs but do not further pupils’ educational development.
There is not much time left. Labour needs to be ready in 2015 with bold ideas that are firmly based on stability and good professional practice.