What is Labour’s plan for schools?

Written By: Graham Lane
Published: February 11, 2017 Last modified: February 11, 2017

The latest news on education is a threat from Grammar schools to require parents to give them extra payments. The National Audit Office has warned the current funding levels will mean reduced spending for schools by 2020. The Treasury has taken back now over £384 million of school funding. Headteachers are claiming that a lack of funds could force a four day week involving schools.

However, Education Ministers have told MPs that there is over £500m for the Government’s Academy programme. Some of us are looking back to what happened when Kenneth Baker was Education Secretary. He introduced Local Management of schools so Headteachers and senior staff ran the schools with the help and support of School Governors, which included elected parent Governors, staff Governors, Local Government appointees and Governors co-opted by the Governing body.

Kenneth Baker also introduced the National Curriculum and warned the Government that the GCE was outdated. He went on to set up Colleges for 14 to 19 year olds delivering vocational courses in subjects like Engineering.

This policy then fell into the hands of people like Michael Gove, who fell in love with Academies, with consultants being paid large sums of money to advise schools instead of leaving it to Headteachers to manage them.

The Labour Party seems to have opted out of having an Education policy and cannot, it seems, condemn Teresa May’s support for a Grammar school in every town. There are signs, though, that Labour’s present Shadow Minister of Education, Angela Rayner, has produced some helpful headlines about Labour’s policies. Her promise to bring back the successful Education Maintenance Awards for the less well off 16-19 year olds was very welcome. She also believes the present curriculum is out dated and far too narrow.

Vocational education is valued very much more in the rest of Europe and no country has such a narrow approach to Education as we do. Examinations at sixteen are now largely irrelevant and A level is far too narrow. All students need to have both academic and vocational elements in their curriculum so they can respond to today’s needs. The last Labour government tried to introduce 14-19 vocational Diplomas which was very much supported by industry and employers. Micheal Gove, in 2010, abandoned them without even waiting for the first year’s results, which were very commendable.

Why do the Conservatives keep inventing ill-thought-out policies on education? Bringing back Grammar schools and ending Local Government’s important role in education has not seen an improvement in standards. What then should Labour do?

For a start it needs to decide who manages schools,who decides the curriculum and how it is funded. The government should also decide what is the role of Further Education, which has suffered so badly over its funding under all governments. University education should remain free at the point of use but there could be contribution by students after graduation which could be a fixed amount on their National Insurance for a fixed number of years.

Before the 1997 election the Labour Party set up a Commission on Education which successfully drove their agenda, which was im­plemented after the General Election. Unfortunately, in govern­ment they looked to the introduction of Academies as a solution in raising standards and weakened local authorities’ role, which the present government has virtually ended.

Labour should be winning many votes over education and there is no shortage of people willing to help the party develop  radical and successful policies which would win Labour support at the General Election. Angela Rayner has started well but needs  to convince parents, teachers and industry that education would be better under a Labour government. It needs to fund it properly, reform the curriculum and let schools and colleges run their own affairs with sufficient financial support.

Ending the 164 Grammar schools would be a good place to start and this would be supported by many local government leaders, including many Conservative ones. Why, then, is this not happening? Labour has to accept the fact they will never be popular with the English media but, if they were seen delivering higher educational standards throughout the country, winning the next election would be much easier. To do that they need to win the election and education could then play a significant role.

A significant factor is the future of the Erasmus programme, which allows all students the opportunity to spend part of their secondary school or university course in another European country, paid for by the European Union. Many take advantage of this by being educated for part of their course in the UK but fewer do this from the UK, partly because of a lack of publicity about these arrangements. This has now been extended to apprenticeships and people employed in various industries, especially where they have companies in different European countries.

What, then, is stopping Labour developing an Education and Skills policy which would help them win the next election? Time is not on our side, especially if Brexit leads to the UK having a recession which damages us all and paves the way for a General Election. A successful education policy could help us win that election but we need to act quickly and be bold with our policies.

Graham Lane is a former Chair of the Local Government Association’s Education Committee

About Graham Lane

Graham Lane is a former chair fo the Local Government Association's education committee