Last week I set out why I believe the Tories do not understand children, parents or how to create an educational meritocracy. That was the easy part. If there is one thing the Labour party has been set about doing over the past 12 months, it is opposing government policy. It has been much more hesitant to set out its own distinctive policy positions. We need, therefore, to progress from the current main position, which is to defend from Tory attacks the comprehensive education that we all support, and move to deploy new policies that are capable of transforming education in the 21st century.
First, and most important, is early years education. The importance of investment here cannot be overestimated. Reinvesting in Sure Start is vital for creating excellent experiences for pre-school children. Additionally, the more we can support younger children into nurseries whose parents might struggle to afford it, the more ready they will be to learn when they reach primary education. And an often overlooked resource for families is parenting education, which will drastically increase the chances for thousands of children from underprivileged backgrounds.
Second, the debate around grammar schools has highlighted a need to continue to drive up standards in education. We want those standards driven up across the board, though, not just for those who are able to pass the 11-plus exam. This presents a real challenge, however. How do we create a learning environment that allows every child to achieve their potential?
The 21st century has provided new approaches to learning through technology. Traditional methods of teaching fact-based subjects such as maths and science have allowed some children to be left behind if the pace of teaching does not meet their needs, leading to some people believing they do not have the capacity to learn maths skills to a high standard. But resources such as Khan Academy, based in America, are revolutionising how children learn and how teachers interact with students, with children learning via online resources at their own pace so that teachers can track which students are falling behind in which areas and providing more bespoke support to individual needs. Championing this kind of approach should be a no-brainer and will allow Labour to say that we believe every child can master these subjects – especially as we still need to do better in subjects like maths.
Next, we must acknowledge the nuance that exists in the often polarised debate about school type. Academies and free schools are more likely to be graded either ‘outstanding’ or ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted whereas comprehensives are more likely to be ‘good’ or ‘requires improvement’. So we must, as a party, be willing to look at the success stories of academisation and learn the lessons to translate that success to all classrooms across the country while adding in protections to alleviate the concerns of parents and learning from failures.
The Tory government has announced that there will be 500 new free schools opening in the coming years. Smaller class sizes and innovative approaches to education should be welcomed, along with more choice for parents. But the important factor to consider for a future Labour government is where these schools will be built. It is absolutely imperative that schools are built first in the areas with the biggest shortages and largest class sizes. The Labour party, with its history of devolution and localism should commit to ensuring local needs are met in this regard, working with those who want to open new free schools to ensure local communities are provided for.
Related to this is the issue of accountability, with academies and free schools not subject to regulation from local education authorities. While local educational authorities play an important role, we should accept that schools and teachers know best how to provide for their own students, but need to be held externally accountable. So LEAs should have powers over academies and free schools to investigate complaints and resolve disputes as a local but independent body. But if we accept that schools and teachers know best what is best for the children they provide for, then we must argue that schools that want to remain under the existing model should be free to do so. For this reason, forced academisation was a poorly judged policy proposal and one that Labour must commit to ensuring never becomes legislation.
And finally, let’s prove to the country that Labour can be the champions of technical and vocational education, working with the business community to provide incentives to give apprentices skills and opportunities that are considered as valuable as those gained through a traditional academic route. To do this, we must offer both small and large businesses the incentives to invest in their future workforce. Not least as the Tories create a hostile business environment with a hard Brexit more generally, meaning that there is new space opening up for Labour to work with business on many fronts, including education.
Education is the silver bullet when it comes to improving social mobility across the whole of society, and increased investment is needed. The Tory government’s position exposes an enormous chasm in understanding of what families and children need in order to improve their outcomes. Rather than jumping to old ideological positions as the Tories have, let’s show the people of Britain that Labour has a real vision for overcoming the challenges facing them in the 21st century.
Dan Moloney is a Labour activist. He tweets at @DanMoloney
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