England’s education system is undergoing rapid change under Michael Gove, but little has been heard from Labour about its own plans. During Manchester Policy Week 2013, Professor Ruth Lupton took part in a debate on Labour’s achievements, and what it might do now. There was profound disagreement among the academics involved. But despite this, she argues that policymakers must embrace academic knowledge to achieve a better and more just education system.
It was generally agreed by the presenters at our event that Labour’s last attempt at governing England’s education system was over-centralised, and not always informed by evidence, despite the rhetoric of ‘evidence-based policy’.
They also agreed there were different versions of New Labour, at different times and on different questions. Labour’s education policy was beset by contradictions and the tensions in the New Labour political project.
But overall, should Labour be proud of its record, or ‘hang its head in shame’?
Coming from a political arithmetic approach and reporting on my recent report on Labour’s record, I argued that Labour had a lot to be proud of ; re-investing in education and raising spending to respectable levels by international comparison; investing in teacher quality; prioritising the reduction of educational inequality; redistributing funds to disadvantaged schools, narrowing gaps in attainment despite the fact that overall income inequality didn’t shift in this period; and articulating a wider vision of a good childhood, through Every Child Matters, a Department for Children Schools and Families, and partial withdrawal from testing in later years.
Professor Alan Dyson particularly picked up on this last point. Labour, he argued, was ‘stumbling towards’ (not a criticism) a more powerful vision of what education could be, as articulated in its ‘21st Century Schools’ document.
This set out a ‘perhaps post-hoc attempt’ (Dyson’s words) to articulate a wider vision of what education is for: high aspirations for all, so all are able to progress, with schools at the centre of systems of early intervention and targeted support, and providing a range of activities and opportunities to enrich the lives of children, families and the wider community.
Although acknowledging that this was not fully implemented, Dyson strongly argued that it was ‘more than just words’ – witnessed by extended schools, multi-agency approaches, Sure Start, and personalised learning. Few governments anywhere in the world, he suggested, had reached Labour’s level of understanding of the complex eco-systemic relations between individual, family, community, schools and wider economic relations.
This was not a finished product, but a move in the right direction.
Other colleagues offered much more critical perspectives. Carl Emery and Professor Neil Humphrey focused on Labour’s social and emotional well-being agenda, pointing out how an approach initially informed by standards and social justice turned, after 2004/5 into the ‘SEAL era’ – an “objective list theory” approach, focusing on deficit models of children’s wellbeing. This was presented as a panacea for the transformation of individual and school-level outcomes, largely ignoring substantial research evidence about social and emotional aspects of learning.
England’s ‘discourse of employability’ increasingly diverged from the approach in other parts of the UK, which retained a focus on inclusion and social justice.
Professor Helen Gunter looked at Labour’s record through the lens of school leadership. While acknowledging that Labour offered hope, investment and aspirations to greater equity, in a system where people were being “educated to know their place”, she strongly criticised New Labour for failing to countenance alternative policies for education, becoming ‘obsessed’ with school leadership, and being dependent upon normative notions of ‘what works’ rather than research evidence and/or professional knowledge.
She pointed to an increasing narrowing of the education knowledge base for policy. Labour talked about evidence-based policy, she argued, but increasingly relied upon belief, rather than evidence and the idea that education is all ‘common sense’; in the process marginalising professional knowledge and critical voices.
Professor David Hall firmly argued that Labour should not defend its education record. Although conceding that money was spent and that Labour put considerable energy into combating disadvantage, from which undoubtedly children benefited, he criticised Labour for an “almost complete failure” to overcome the inheritance of neo-conservative approaches to curriculum and assessment and neo-liberal approaches to marketisation, competition and choice.
Labour made matters worse, he argued, not only prescribing what should be taught but how it should be taught, and opening the door to further marketisation and privatisation.
Instead of curriculum innovation, schools became hostages to narrow instrumentalism, teachers became fearful and professional development was reduced to ‘what works’. With no attack on income inequality overall, schools were placed in the impossible position of being the only engines left for social mobility, while almost wholly constrained by central policy direction.
That academics disagree so profoundly over Labour’s record should not bring moans and groans from the political elites.
So education experts cannot agree on simple ‘what works’ formulae for ‘delivering’ better educational outcomes; that is because education is not a bounded linear process of transforming inputs into outputs.
Knowledge about education cannot be distilled into a traffic light rating system for effective ‘interventions’. But that doesn’t mean that that academic knowledge cannot help us see the way through to a better and more just education system in the future.
I finished the session arguing that Labour should engage in another Great Education Debate, engaging with the fundamental questions that matter to students, parents, teachers, governors and the wider community.
This is what we will be doing in Manchester over the next eighteen months. We encourage people of all political persuasions to join in.