Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

A radical shift in education

A dark cloud looms over our schools – and Labour is well-placed to help them weather the storm, writes Jack May

‘Education, education, education’. In a system left languishing by nearly two decades of Tory neglect, this was not just a mantra but a vital commitment to tackling inequality. School buildings were rejuvenated, class sizes were reduced and strict standards for performance were introduced.

Education reform is vital to the Labour agenda. However, with the focus on foreign policy and the economy towards the end of the last Labour government, we lost momentum, leaving the Conservatives to attempt to fill the vacuum. Although Michael Gove was hardly known for his popularity among the profession – one teacher I know still has a pin cushion in his likeness on her desk – he introduced reforms that had far reaching implications and were framed for his base.

Despite the rhetoric surrounding Conservative education reform, the system continues to stutter. For each of the past five years, the government had missed its own targets for teacher recruitment – in fact, teacher training applicants have fallen by a third in just one year. This is reflected by the number of unqualified teachers, which has soared by nearly 20 per cent in the past three years.

The party that created this looming crisis is not going to fix this, no matter who emerges as education secretary. Labour, under inspirational shadow Angela Rayner, must offer a new approach to recruitment that ensures people are drawn to, and stay in, teaching.

The carrot for potential teachers is already very much in place. Bursaries of up to £30,000 are available, and some schools have thrown in private healthcare packages and gym memberships in an effort to attract the best talent. TeachFirst has also created a route that allows graduates direct placement into the classroom, with the promise of a careers such as consulting or the civil service, as a reward.

Tinkering with retail policy will not work. If Labour is serious about offering an education platform that makes long-term improvements, it must consider a radical shift in how schools work.

When one in five teachers is working 60 hours or more a week, struggling with rampant classes in under resourced schools, the profession will obviously be unappealing to potential joiners. Long holidays are hardly of much comfort when teachers are rundown and unhealthily overworked the rest of the time.

Labour should bring fresh ideas to make teaching more appealing as a lifestyle – whether that is shortening school days to reduce the mountain of marking and paperwork, or reshaping the holiday schedule so that shorter breaks take the place of long summers which often leave disadvantaged pupils even further behind.

Rayner is emerging at Labour’s forefront, with passion, motivation, and the ability to unite the different wings of the party. She and her team can drive home the message what damage the Conservatives are doing to our schools off a cliff and create a serious platform of reforms that includes recruiting new teachers, so education can once again be a vital arrow in Labour’s bow.


Jack May is a Progress columnist, writer and editor. He tweets at @JackO_May


Photo: Creative Commons

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Jack May


  • Jack May’s article is a call to arms, but not yet a plan to go forward.
    What if we aimed to change the purpose of education back to preparing the individual for life? helping them fill their skins and find out all their currently unexplored potential? The current system is all too similar to the old colonial practice of “educating” people for the benefit of the system – to be useful clerks and job fodder.
    I would start leavening the curriculum with some physical (including for example different sorts of dancing) and some other creative activity every day, breaking up the more academic subjects to use other parts of the brain. I would aim to find a “hot button” of some sort for every child, giving each some experience of success; this could give interests outside school but would have first to be nurtured inside. I would make sure all policy makers and teachers understood the difference between passive and active learning, and nobody (parents included) can teach what they don’t know or offer those stimulating enrichment activities that poorer children never get anywhere near without resources. I would start working towards a longer and more stimulating school day that also included life skills, self-management, basic home nursing and health maintenance skills, money management (of course) and, fundamentally, caring for babies and toddlers so that young people feel their education is related to life, and they leave school confident and with some sense that they can cope, enjoy and aspire.
    This would mean a major progressive shift of resources from other departments that currently exist to contain the disastrous effects of inadequate upbringing and education on so many individuals.
    Children are not born bored, and they have amazing capacities for immersing themselves in what interests them, early stimulus lays stronger foundations, and I don’t think children with a sufficiently varied curriculum would have much difficulty with a longer day. Enthusiastic children would make teaching an altogether more attractive and rewarding experience.
    It goes without saying that teacher training would also need a major overhaul, and the end product would be not only happier and more confident people but also a more exciting economy.
    I think this policy would end up paying for itself.

  • Is that it? Is that all there is? The long standing problems of education in England, as shown for example by the Tomlinson and Woolf reports, our continuing chronic failure in skills education, the seemingly intractable problem of high levels of pupil disengagement from age 14 (which lie beneath the disciplinary, disruption and truancy problems which afflict teaxchers so much and discourage entry to the profession), the persisting general under achievement and literacy and numeracy shortfalls among working class kids, etc etc and the answer to this is to make teaching more attractive by shortening hours? This is supposed to be a radical shift? Setting aside the factual errors and historic ignorance (Labour was actually hyperactive in education under Balls at the end of the last Labour administration) what might be considered is, if schools are ‘under resourced’ then why are Labour proposing to subsidise primary school meals for middle class parents rather than putting that money directly into school funding or why are they prepared to throw away billions of tax money on HE fees, which is in effect – given the class gap in participation – a direct transfer of resources from the many to the few, when we actually have far too many people going into HE (HE participation in Germany is around 2/3 of ours) and that money could be more effectively, usefully and progressively spent on technical education and training (the kind of things working class kids want to do)? Certainly we do need to drop the shibboleth of number of hours kids (and hence teachers) spend in school (we already had our kids in school for a bigger number of hours than other European countries BEFORE the raising of school leaving age a few years ago) but the problems are so large, so critical and have persisted for so long that this is just tinkering. The problems are fundamental and structural. We could start by looking at just how so many EU countries are able to do so much better than us.

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