What can teachers expect from the current Labour leadership’s approach to education?
In January, I attended the Fabian Society’s virtual conference. As a teacher, I was keen to attend the sessions with Kate Green, current shadow education secretary, and Wes Streeting, shadow schools minister, to hear in their own words the direction of travel for the Labour party on education.
On the current crisis
Both Streeting and Green discussed the inequalities that the pandemic has laid bare, from the digital divide, to the free school meals fiasco and the growing attainment gap. They are right to point out that children from disadvantaged backgrounds have suffered a much greater impact from the school closures than their wealthier peers. This fact was thrown into sharp relief during the A-Level results shambles last summer, when children from poorer areas were much more likely to have their grades lowered by the government’s algorithm than children living in more affluent areas.
As the former chief executive of Child Poverty Action Group, Green has made the tackling of child poverty central to her brief. Her comments in her interview with Fiona Millar at the conference showed she understands the intrinsic way that poverty impacts educational achievement. She described teachers as having ‘one hand tied behind their backs’ when trying to close the attainment gap, as it so hard to compensate for the effects of child poverty. She also highlighted the challenges of supporting young people living in overcrowded or inadequate housing to learn from home, or the hurdles experienced by families who do not have access to digital devices or face severe food insecurity. This view that the attainment gap will persist unless child poverty is urgently addressed will ring true for many teachers working in deprived communities.
The focus on keeping schools open ‘no ifs, no buts’ from Green and Starmer has led to tension with the teaching profession over the last 11 months. Many teachers felt that the Labour leadership was too slow to call for the second closure of schools in January, in the face of overwhelming evidence that this was clearly necessary. Ensuring teachers feel that Labour is on their side will be essential going forward, including by working with the education unions to present a united front on school safety in the face of Conservative incompetence.
Education policy in the long term
Many of the questions Green received from audience members at the Fabians conference was on Labour’s approach to reforming academies and abolishing grammar schools. Green was one of the first MPs to support Abolish Eton in 2019. She also has a large number of grammar schools in her constituency and has voiced opposition to them in the past. Nonetheless, on this occasion she said that, as education secretary, reforming structures within education are not her priority, although she is open to it. This is in keeping with the current Labour leadership’s approach to policy- a reluctance to commit to far reaching reforms four years out from the next election and to focus on broad themes instead.
Aside from the vital focus on child poverty, Kate Green did discuss some of her other priorities for education in depth. A longstanding battle within education is the deep funding cuts that the sector has suffered since 2010. Green promised to address the unequal allocation of resources, with a particular focus on funding for early years and the reintroduction of SureStart. This is welcome, given the body of evidence that shows the impact of high quality early years education on life chances. Another priority for the shadow education team is the recruitment and retention of teachers, something that will require careful thought given that nearly a third of all teachers currently leave within the first five years of entering the profession. In a nod to academy reform, she highlighted the need to address the lack of democratic accountability of many multi-academy trusts. She also promised to address the myriad of issues around admissions and exclusions, which often negatively impacts disadvantaged young people and young people with special educational needs. She said little on the curriculum but voiced concern about the marginalisation of the arts and a need to address this. In an earlier session, Wes Streeting said the curriculum should reflect the society in which we live, a dividing line with the Tories who are increasingly accused of promoting a male, pale and stale curriculum. There are now widespread calls from the public to diversify the curriculum, with a particular focus on including Black British history and also on educating young people about the climate emergency. When making plans for curriculum reform, Labour should take guidance from organisations like the Runnymede Trust who have led on this.
One area that has remained a focus for Labour and that Green echoed at the conference is a heartfelt commitment to adult education, based on Labour’s Lifelong Learning Commission’s report, published in November 2019. This cradle to grave approach would be a radical departure from the current decimation of funding of FE colleges, historically the main source of adult education, particularly for working class people. Green discussed the need to fund sustainable avenues into vocational education and her view that everyone should be able to re-enter the education system as an adult to retrain and develop the new skills needed in response to a constantly shifting labour market. The government’s T-levels have been an attempt at supporting vocational education but they have had limited success. A Labour government able to truly invest in life long education could be a real vote winner and central to building a just, more equitable education system.
Kate Green is right when she says that parents mainly care about the quality of education their children receives, as opposed to the type of school it is delivered in. The shadow education team is therefore wise to focus on the quality of teaching, more equal distribution of resources and on issues where there is wide public support, such as tackling the seismic rise in child poverty under the Tories. However, education professionals care deeply about the kind of school they work in, who runs it and how. There will come a point when Labour has to make more firm commitments on reform of multi-academy trusts in particular, but also on selection, assessment (including SATs), the curriculum and more. As a teacher, I would like to see robust efforts to improve the working conditions of teachers and support staff, including a pay rise; steps to tackle workload and teacher burnout; and greater autonomy for education professionals. I wrote about how a Labour government could reform the academy system here, something I believe to be in need of urgent attention. The Tories’ record on education, during the pandemic, has been woeful. Labour should continue to hold them accountable for these failings and work with the teaching profession to create a vision for education that puts the needs of all children at its center.
About the author:
Maggie is a teacher and Labour councillor in London'.