Education policy – Why we need long-term vision and bold opposition

Illustration depicting the United Kingdom's Houses of Parliament, representing education policy

Melissa Benn highlight concerns about the detrimental impact of short-term policymaking on England’s education system and discusses the need for a more dynamic approach…

Melissa Benn
by Melissa Benn

Is short-term education policy holding back England’s schools? Given the current political situation, isn’t it a good time for a more energetic and ambitious approach to education? Melissa Benn investigates…

Less short-term thinking, more forward planning

England’s education system is being stymied by short-term policymaking, argues Melissa Benn – but will a new administration do things any differently?

‘Long Term Decisions for Britain’s Future’ was Rishi Sunak’s slightly clunky party conference slogan this year – a clear attempt to distinguish his administration from his two disastrous ‘quick-fix’ (but fix nothing) predecessors.

Similarly, Keir Starmer has spoken of the 10 years needed to solve Britain’s problems, asserting that “Long-term solutions are not ‘oven ready’.”

According to a recent report by former Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and Andrew Fisher, previously the party’s executive director of policy and research, if Labour win the next General Election, “The inheritance of that Labour government will be the toughest of any incoming administration in living memory.

Starmer has consequently pledged to take extreme fiscal caution. See education, for example. Restoring education spending to 2010 levels, as a percentage of GDP, would cost an additional £21.3 billion per year. Labour’s promise to levy 20% VAT on private school fees would raise a mere £1.5 billion.

But the problem isn’t just about revenue, important though that is. It’s about the direction of policy making itself, and the need for any government that’s serious about making long-term changes to set out a roadmap for reform underpinned by clear principles, wide consultation and provision of sufficient resources.

Shallow ideas

And yet, our current politics couldn’t be further from that approach. We’re presented instead with only shallow, headline-grabbing ideas. Gillian Keegan wants to ban smartphones in school (when many schools already have such policies in place). Keir Starmer wants schools to oversee toothbrushing (when the real problem there is a lack of affordable dentistry).

More broadly, we’ve seen decades of structural upheaval, dreamt up and directed from an over-confident centre. The introduction of academies, Free Schools, regional school commissioners and multi-academy trusts has led to a fragmented mishmash of institutions that’s increasingly shaped by private and charitable interests, but which still leaves us with one of the unequal education systems in Europe, a generation of disenchanted teachers and stressed pupils.

It’s salutary to remind ourselves of how other countries have gone about things differently. Countries like Finland, where, from the 1960s onwards, the political left and right came together to shape a new kind of school system.

Collegial, intellectual, holistic

The Finnish educator and author Pasi Sahlberg recently identified three core values that shape the highly effective Finnish system. The first is that education shouldn’t be managed as a business. Rather, it should be seen as being reliant on effective collaboration, trust and collegial responsibility.

The second is a recognition that teaching is a high level, intellectual profession requiring:

  • advanced academic education
  • solid scientific and practical knowledge
  • continuous on-the-job training

The final core value is an awareness that a successful education system shouldn’t be judged on literacy or numeracy scores alone, but also emphasise whole-child development, equity of education outcomes and wellbeing. It should also ensure the arts, music, drama and PE remain as central offerings.

In England, we’ve pursued principles that run directly counter to all three of these core values, as well as those of other comparatively successful education systems. It’s frustrating to watch England continue making so many missteps, but it’s important to also understand why.

An unarticulated ideology

Embedded deep within the English psyche is the belief that our education system exists to produce an elite – a cadre of the confident and clever either drawn from an existing privileged caste (those educated at private schools) or else picked out from the masses via meritocratic opportunity (grammars, selective sixth forms and Oxbridge). For the rest, ‘standard fare’ will have to do.

This powerful, if largely unarticulated ideology creates a profound lack of trust in all but the elite. This is from local government leaders down to teachers themselves.

If the political class has little trust in those running our public services, then they’ll try to control them. This has the result that those services become less effective.

There’s little indication so far that Labour plans to reorient education in a radically different direction. However, winning power might galvanise a new Labour government into at least adopting a long-term education policy. Only then will we get the effective, fair and sustainable system this country deserves.

The opposition should be more bold

Labour’s education policy has so far lacked the dynamism it had circa 1997 – but with the Tories on the back foot, now’s the time to get ambitious…

Those with long memories will recall how ‘Education, Education, Education’ was one of the key themes during the 1997 election, when New Labour swept to power after 18 years of Conservative rule.

Back then, many voters felt that Margaret Thatcher, and latterly John Major, had allowed school estate to crumble. They felt the government needed to invest more in state education.

Now, in autumn 2023, most political pundits confidently predict that Labour is set to win the next general election – this time after 13 years of Conservative government, and perhaps again with education as a defining theme. But it would be a mistake to draw too close a parallel with 1997.

The Gove legacy

Many Conservatives believe that the party’s education reforms, initiated and driven through with extraordinary energy by Michael Gove between 2010 and 2014, have yielded significant improvements. They point to:

  • mass academisation
  • the introduction and subsequent spread of Free Schools
  • the country’s increased standing in international league tables

In the latest round of PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) results released in 2019, the UK had indeed moved up the rankings from 22nd to 14th in reading; 27th to 18th in maths and 15th to 14th in science.

Broad backing for the Conservatives’ reforms has come from a number of influential sources, including the Times Education Commission. This September, The Economist magazine even reported on what it described as ‘The strange success of the Tories’ schools policy

Strikingly, however, there are also many others who believe that the country’s school system has reached a new low, with funding slashed, teachers in a state of unrest, arts provision in decline and a growing attainment gap between children of different social classes. Former Teach Secondary columnist Fiona Millar, for example, has described the Gove reforms and their legacy as “An endless, exhausting, often toxic whirlwind of ideas.

Cautious promises

And yet, the Labour Party hasn’t committed to undoing any of the Conservatives’ key reforms. Instead, it’s cautiously promised to:

  • boost classroom use of spoken language (or ‘oracy’)
  • reform Ofsted
  • invest more in early years and vocational education

It has also notably pledged to end the tax breaks enjoyed by private schools. It says it will use the money saved to fund more teachers in hard-pressed state schools. This is an education policy that polls well with the electorate. Otherwise, Labour’s position on education has thus far not generated quite the game-changing energy of 1997.

But then along came Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC). The finding that this material, used in many schools across England, could collapse with little advance warning after being in place for several decades prompted a number of settings to close for emergency inspections.

This was all just as the new academic year was getting underway. It caused thousands of pupils to be shunted into temporary buildings.

Renewed boldness on education policy

The RAAC issue has certainly turned up the political heat on the current government. People have since accused Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of cutting back on school rebuilding when he was Chancellor.

Education Minister Gillian Keegan didn’t help matters when a reporter caught her complaining that her efforts at resolving the issue were going unappreciated.

The RAAC crisis now serves as a handy metaphor for the ways in which education has fared under Conservative rule. It highlights an arrogant governing party out of touch with ordinary people.

We can expect the opposition parties, including Labour, to continue beating the ‘Look at our crumbling schools’ drum in the months to come. Meanwhile the Conservatives will work to repair not just the affected schools but their own reputations.

Meanwhile, amid talk of ‘rising standards’ and ‘expansions of educational opportunity’ we’ll likely see the opening of more Free Schools and hyper-selective sixth forms in areas of deprivation.

But with the government on the back foot, Labour would do well to step up its own education promises. As with health, there’s a hard limit to what it can achieve without increased investment.

There are also growing calls for a long overdue reform of the mid-secondary phase. This includes the abolition of GCSEs and the introduction of a genuine baccalaureate that mixes academic and vocational learning.

A renewed boldness on education policy, backed by proper funding, could well give the current Labour party the edge it needs in the coming electoral battle over Education, Education, Education…

Melissa Benn (@Melissa_Benn) is the author of Life Lessons: The Case for a National Education Service, and is a visiting professor at York St John university

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