Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Labour’s vision for a One Nation examination system fit for the 21st century

Thank you to the IAA for organising today’s conference.

Your work spans the political divide and that is why the impact of your achievements will be lasting.

There is so much to do to overcome the educational disadvantages that take root in many children even before they begin school.

Academies, as you know, were first established to overcome the persistent underperformance that had taken a hold in some schools; targeting low standards in areas of high social and economic deprivation.

The success of Labour’s academies programme is documented by Andrew Adonis in his book, ‘Education, Education, Education: Reforming England’s Schools’.

Andrew identifies four measures of success of Labour’s academy programme: improved exam results, popularity amongst parents, positive impact on neighbouring schools and combating disadvantage.

I would add an additional success measure: academies have played an important part in strengthening the status and professionalism of education leaders. You have provided an important vehicle for innovation. Academies have given licence to a generation of education leaders with bold ambitions, who refused to accept that failing and under performing schools cannot be transformed.

I want to draw on two examples of academies that I have visited recently.

Take Harefield Academy in Uxbridge. Under the leadership of Principal Lynn Gadd, Harefield is unrecognisable from the school it replaced in September 2005. It is not only raising standards and aspirations for its pupils and teachers; its impact is being felt right across the local community.

In pioneering a boarding house, Harefield is showing how state schools can bridge the gap between state and private schools, tailoring the education that they provide to meet the needs of individual pupils.

At North Liverpool Academy, Principal Kay Askew oversees a modern day, broad and balanced curriculum that aims to equip her pupils with the ‘job skills’ needed for the labour market of the future.

NLA has seen excellent progress, serving extremely deprived communities. I was struck by the prominence attached to vocational education at NLA, an issue that I will come on to.

We see in these academies an education built around the whole child.

One rooted in the crucial foundations of Numeracy and Literacy. One that rejects the false choices that pitch academic versus vocational, skills versus knowledge, and rigour versus creativity.

Lyn and Kay are innovative leaders in education, leading confident, bold and progressive schools.


A mixed economy of schools

Academies have achieved great things, as I said last night when I delivered the Annual Caroline Benn Memorial Lecture.

But progress is not limited to academies.

If I think about schools like Highlands Comprehensive in Enfield, rated Outstanding by Ofsted, and the Kingswood and Elm Wood Primary Schools that are part of the Gipsy Hill Federation in Lambeth, the thing that strikes me about what drives successful schools is excellent leadership.

Excellence is not the preserve of any one type of school, it is the preserve of exemplary leadership.

Whilst we are seeing an increase in the number of academies and free schools, there is and will continue to be a mixed economy in the types of schools and if we are to achieve system wide improvement, all schools- whatever their type- need to work together to ensure that no school is left behind.

Too often it is the case that poor children are served a poor education. According to analysis by Chris Cook for the Financial Times the gap in attainment between rich and poor children narrowed in England during our time in government. Tragically, it remains the case that an individual’s social background all too often determines their life chances.

The attainment gap at Key Stage 4 is only one measure. If we were to examine the core characteristics required for success, we would likely find that the gap is as pronounced in leadership skills, speaking skills or exposure to experience in a professional working environment. All of which we know to be crucial for getting ahead in life.

Research by the RSA has found that children from socially deprived backgrounds are served with a double disadvantage. If you are a child from an area of high social deprivation, you are disproportionately more likely to attend a school that is classed as underperforming by Ofsted.

The genesis for Labour’s academies programme was to launch a direct assault on this double disadvantage.

I am concerned that in losing the focus on underperforming schools in areas of high social and economic deprivation, the positive impact of the academies programme might be diluted.

I worry that the principal foundations for successful early academies- that of collaboration and partnership- have been replaced by a fixation on a numbers game.

I want to look forward to the education landscape in the years to come.

Today, hardly anyone thinks that local authorities should directly run schools, though there is still an important role for local government in education.

I am interested in a range of models that we can learn from. The London Challenge and the City Challenges have important lessons for us.

Nick Weller, Executive Principal of the four academies in the Dixons Group in Bradford, told me last week about the work being done between academies, neighbouring schools and the local authority in Bradford.

Bradford Secondary Partnership is a collaboration between the local authority, academy schools and maintained schools. It has identified performance in maths and English as a priority and has a recruitment and CPD strategy in place to collectively raise performance in these key areas.

These are the kind of innovations that local authorities and schools are developing.

Partnership and collaboration have shown to be effective drivers for the improvement that we have seen in London’s secondary schools. Less than a decade ago they performed below the national average. Today, London’s schools are amongst the best in the country. We need only look to the case of Hackney and the success of the Learning Trust. Schools working together, not pitched against one another.

I want to say a few words on the work that the IAA is doing around its Quality Mark.

As parents want to be able to see reliable indicators of quality in the education that their children are receiving, we too want to see quality guarantees in the services that our schools procure.

In an increasingly fragmented system of education providers, there is important work to do to ensure value for money and quality of service.

It is not progressive for children to receive a below par education, nor is it progressive for public money to be wasted through bad procurement.

Securing a better deal for schools and for the tax payer is as important today as it has ever been and I pay tribute to the IAA for their work in this area.


The purpose of education

Often in the debate in education, the most important question is overlooked, which is ‘What is the purpose of education?’

First, the social justice argument. Education is the best means for advancing social mobility.

Second, education has an inherent value in and of itself, for the individual citizen and for society as a whole.

Third, and what parents often say to me, is education serves to ready young people for the world of work.

Of course passing exams is an important milestone on the pathway to success.

But so too is personal development. The whole child.

If we look at many of the leading independent schools, what sets the education that they provide apart from many state schools is the importance that they place on character development. Whilst many state schools- academies and maintained schools alike- are doing fantastic work in this area, we need to see a culture change in our schools.

Leadership, resilience, the ability to work in a team and self management are vital qualities. Together with good exams results, these are the skills young people need to succeed. Schools like Harefield Academy and North Liverpool Academy place a premium on developing these characteristics as a core part of their curriculum.

The CBI tells us that young people need to be better prepared for the workplace and Anthony Seldon, Head Master of Wellington College, has also championed the case for character development in schools. We need to address the skills challenge alongside ensuring our exam system is robust and our curriculum is fit for the 21st century.

I absolutely agree with him when he argues that instead of compromising standards, placing a greater role on character development does in fact improve performance- whether that be in attainment, behaviour or in developing more rounded and engaged citizens.


Reforming the examination system

This conference focuses us on the examination system that we want to build.

We have had a preview of the Secretary of State’s remarks in the papers this morning. We have a clear difference of opinion in our approaches to exam reform. I do not believe that building an examination system based on rote learning is the answer. Rigour is about so much more than rote learning, Rigour is also about understanding how to use concepts and how to think for yourself.

Nor do I believe that rushed proposals that lack consensus will achieve a lasting solution.

Today’s examination system in secondary education is a consequence of historic evolution, not a consequence of design.

That is why Labour has set up a taskforce, led by Professor Chris Husbands, to review how best we can ensure that the qualification system meets the needs of both academic and the vocational learning together. In his speech to the Labour Party conference in September, Ed Miliband announced that Labour will offer young people a clear vocational route, more high level apprentices for schools leavers and all young people will study Maths and English to 18.

Ed talked about the 50% who choose not to go to university.

That is not to say those pursing vocational education should not and do not go to university – high level vocational study at university level is crucial for our economy. What it does mean is clear pathways for all young people so those studying vocational subjects also get the skills and experience they need to progress, and their qualifications provide them with what they need for the world of work.

The raising of the education leaving age to 18 in 2015, prompts us to examine the merits of the existing examination system.

It is crucial that we use this opportunity to introduce reforms that raise the credibility of the system and command consensus on the best way forward.

On the proposed changes to exams at 16, I want to offer three thoughts.

First, we must learn lessons from the exam fiasco over this year’s GCSE English. It is not right that pupils have missed out on the grades they deserve because the exam regulator chose to move the goal posts half way through the year.

It is not right either for the fiasco to be confused with a separate debate on forms of assessment.

Second, on forms of assessment. Examinations need to assess the foundations for a good education. But we must reject the idea that this has to be at the cost of creativity and a broad and balanced curriculum.

Scrapping coursework and controlled assessments outright would be wrong. Forms of assessment must be rigorous yes, but they must also be appropriate for the skills and knowledge that is being assessed.

Third, the secondary exam system must be respected and be based on consensus if we are to secure a lasting settlement.

I worry that unilaterally bringing forward changes to GCSEs and A-levels in this way risks compromising any hope of consensus for lasting reform.

Ofqual’s announcement on Friday told us two things on A level changes. The first that reforms must be handled in a way that engages stakeholders.

The second that the regulator believes that synoptic assessment- assessing skills and knowledge across a range of subjects- has widespread support. This is a welcome development and should inform considerations on any changes to A-levels- and indeed GCSEs- that are bought forward by this government.

The examination system of the future should not hark back to the days of old, when a first class education was the preserve of the few, not the prospect for the many.

Ed Miliband and I have set out our thinking for One Nation education.

This means an examination system that assesses pupil progress and attainment.

An examination system that provides a measure of accountability for parents and commands confidence from employers, apprenticeship providers and universities.

An examination system that assesses knowledge, skills and the core characteristics that a modern day, dynamic and international leading education system should provide.

Such a system must be based on the best evidence here and abroad. It requires genuine support in the world of education and work. And ideally it should have broad cross-party support. I look forward to working with academies and other schools to shape such a system.


Stephen Twigg MP, Shadow Education Secretary

Wednesday November 14th, 2012


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Stephen Twigg MP

is chair of the international development select committee

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