With the Labour Party conference in town, Manchester Institute of Education (MIE) invited four leading figures in education to join teachers, academics, teacher educators, parents and others in a public debate on what a future Labour government should do on schools. Prof Ruth Lupton considers some of their key ideas.
- Panel members were Rt. Hon David Blunkett MP, Dr Mary Bousted (leader of the ATL), journalist and campaigner Fiona Millar, and Councillor Sheila Newman, (Manchester City Council Executive Member for Children’s Services).
Ed Miliband’s conference speech made it clear that it is the NHS, not education, which is going to be Labour’s domestic policy priority and, so far, little has been heard from Tristram Hunt about his proposed policy programme.
Perhaps the Shadow Secretary of State is short of ideas, or maybe nervous about imposing further reform on a battered profession. Anyone attending MIE’s public debate, however, would be in no doubt that there is an appetite for change, and a desire for Labour to ‘nail its colours to the mast’ and set out a new and different agenda for schools in England.
Three major themes emerged at this event. The first, echoing the messages from our last debate in June, was an urgent need to invest in and support teacher professionalism. As Mary Bousted put it “no standards will rise in schools unless proper support is given to those who work in schools” or, in David Blunkett’s words “that is the bottom and the top of how we improve standards”.
All governments emphasise the importance of teaching, our speakers said, but they don’t know enough about how to make it happen in practice. Teachers won’t improve just by being told to do, more rigorously, what they are already doing. Rather, good teachers need to reflect, adapt, share, collaborate and be freed from a regime of compliance engendered by fear of Ofsted and forced academisation.
How to get there? One, start from a vote of confidence, recognising that we have thousands of high class, world class, teachers and leaders. Two, insist that teachers must be qualified, through a high quality initial teacher training programme led by universities, although not excluding schools. Sheila Newman cited the success of School Direct in Manchester based on a strong partnership between schools and universities.
And three, invest in professional development – “the cinderalla of the Coalition,” according to Bousted – reinvigorating teaching as a learning profession.
A second theme, inevitably, was the structure of the school system. Given that the ‘genie is out of the bottle’ in terms of academies and free schools, should Labour be aiming to shove it back in or, if not, what should it do to strengthen accountability, inter-school collaboration and local oversight?
None of this panel had much appetite for the former, although Sheila Newman articulated a clear desire for an end to the free school programme, as well as the abolition of selection – the old grammar school dilemma that has dogged Labour as long as anyone can remember.
A level playing field, with all schools having the same rights and freedoms and operating fair admissions was her goal, while Fiona Millar argued forcefully that Labour should pledge to stop the forced academies programme. The main emphasis here, though, was on restoring system coherence, with local oversight of school places and standards, and perhaps new forms of local accountability – parents’ forums or old fashioned Education Committees with wide representation from the local community.
But the most consistent theme of this debate, unanimously and passionately expressed by the panel and supported from the floor, was the need for a different direction for education altogether, a clear vision of what schools are for.
Not exam factories, the panel was clear, but places which should offer a ‘rounded and grounded’ curriculum (Bousted). This should deliver academic knowledge and the broad base of skills needed to thrive in 21st century society: empathy, resilience, confidence, communication, a work ethic, managing money, keeping safe and healthy.
Practical skills should be valued, vocational education invested in, and much greater priority given to careers guidance. We also heard about the importance of the broader investments in children’s well-being: Sure Start, extended schools, family support and family learning.
There was dispute over timing and tactics. Should Labour be pledging, if elected, immediately to overturn the linear GCSE and restore speaking and listening to the English assessment? Or should it be pledging to call a halt, as the RSA has suggested, to frantic policy change and dare to take the time to reflect, consult and develop a long-term policy programme going beyond the next election and effectively removing curriculum and assessment from the political cycle?
These are key decisions, no doubt, but clearly secondary to the big decision Labour must make. Does it go with the flow of marketisation, performativity and narrow academic rigour, or make a stand for comprehensive schooling, an autonomous and empowered teaching profession and an all-round education?
Does it want an education system like that of Singapore or that of Finland? And how will it deal with the even bigger question, posed by David Blunkett at the end of this evening’s event. In an era of continuing austerity, with an ageing population, should it press for additional investment in education, even if this has costs to health, social care and pensions?
All this remains to be seen. Meanwhile, MIE is encouraging participants in the debate and others to have their say, posting ‘Letters to the Next Education Secretary’ on the University’s website, and by attending future debates.