Tristram Hunt made a strong start in his new role as shadow secretary of state for education last weekend: a clear and passionate exchange on the Andrew Marr show (best line: ‘I’ve got a PhD from Cambridge. No one needs to tell me about rigour’) followed a frank interview with the Mail on Sunday in which he put the rhetorical rocket-boosters under the parent-led academy plan outlined by his predecessor Stephen Twigg, and also took the time to apologise to ‘yummy mummies’ and ‘faddy daddies’ for deriding currently-open free schools as vanity projects.
Such a robust opening act has made waves among the Labour education establishment: Hunt has already received a ticking-off from Fiona Millar for being ‘Gove-lite’, had Peter Wilby inform him that working-class children mostly cannot succeed at school, and been implored to reinstate local authorities as the sole arbiters of school organisation on their patches. Suffice to say, while the advice is generally good-natured, most of it is wrong and Hunt should remain committed, as Twigg was, and as their predecessors in government were, to using the most effective available tools for driving up standards, be they PLAs, academy chains or whatever.
I could fill the rest of this piece with advice on making PLAs work properly, asking what role appointed school commissioners might have, or querying precisely what criteria will govern whether PLAs are allowed to be built. However, I’ve made some of those points elsewhere, so I’d like to turn to two issues which Labour and Hunt have indicated they are interested in, but where our policy offer still needs considerable work: school accountability and vocational education.
By accountability, I do not mean we need a tired retread of the arguments for the allegedly ‘democratic’ nature of local authority control of schools: Twigg parcelled that out to the Blunkett review and we should await the outcome. However, the process of accountability for academic standards in our schools, manifested in Ofsted judgements and league table positions, is in a mess. Part of that mess is Labour’s creation: we asked for higher passes at GCSE, especially in English and maths, and the teaching profession obliged; however, we permitted them to use tools, especially GCSE-equivalent vocational qualifications, that too often turned out to improve the stats but not the children. The current government has set about challenging this, but in a way so arcane – in particular, moving to norm-referenced GCSE outcomes (so roughly the same percentage of each school-leaving cohort gets each GCSE grade each year) – that many heads are genuinely worried about the impact. Norm-referencing has some validity for assessing children against each other but it makes it impossible to assess if the system of schools in general is getting any better. The Department for Education’s recently published accountability proposals tries to solve this with assessments of the functional literacy and numeracy of a random sample of 16-year-olds. Labour should respond that if their level of functional literacy and numeracy are (as they should be) one of the things we want to know about our 16-year-olds, they should all be completing the test alongside their GCSEs. Increasing the amount of data generated at school-leaving age can only help in judging how effective schools are being. However, we also need to be clear that, alongside data-based accountability we also want consistent judgement-based accountability, and for that reason we need to put the frighteners on those in Ofsted who continue to resist the reforms initiated by the chief inspector of schools Michael Wilshaw. There remain deeply concerning inconsistencies in Ofsted’s practice which must be ironed out to ensure parents and policymakers can have faith in the judgements they are receiving from the school inspectorate.
On vocational education, Hunt has signalled Labour’s commitment to those who do not wish to go to university. This is good ground to get into, but Hunt should be wary of rushing where every British education reformer has tried to tread since the second world war with little success. Improving the quality of education for students who choose not to pursue academic pathways has, in some way or other, been a preoccupation of virtually every education minister for 50 years, yet we are no closer to an effective system. There are interesting offers out there at present: studio schools, the new university technical colleges, as well as older answers like apprenticeships. A crucial part of providing an answer will be delineating roles: schools have too often been asked to step beyond the bounds of their expertise to somehow psychically pre-empt an ever-changing job market. Instead, Labour should insist schools focus on their core business of academic instruction and require business to take the lead in generating the types of training they wish to see for the young people they employ. A demand-led solution to the training problem will prove much more enduring and much more deliverable.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.