Politics

Back to the future: Labour is preparing for an education system that doesn’t exist

We need a Labour party that understands the system we have, not fighting yesterday's battles

We need a Labour party that understands the system we have, not fighting yesterday's battles

26 Oct 2022, 21:11

In 1997, a Labour government won a landslide election victory. David Blunkett was the secretary of state for education, perhaps one of the most consequential in post-war history.

As well as increasing school funding and reducing class sizes, Blunkett cared deeply about the content of education.

He introduced the National Strategies, focussed intensely on standards of literacy and numeracy, and made citizenship teaching compulsory, because “we want to ensure that there is a basis of traditional knowledge that is available to all children”.

Twenty-five years on, a Labour government look like winning another big election victory, and Blunkett has chaired a council of skills advisers to propose policies for the party’s next manifesto.

The report, published today, is at its strongest when criticising Conservative efforts to unpick the foundations of the 1997 settlement: “The Conservatives’ breath-taking and retro reversion to the promotion of grammar schools, which, by their very nature, are for the few not the many”. 

But it lacks the vision and forward-thinking of the 1997 Labour education manifesto. For whilst it is right to note that grammar schools are an anachronism, it contains a series of different but equally damaging anachronisms of its own.

For example, it features a lot of generalisations about the ‘future of work’ that could have been lifted from a 1990s Microsoft advert.

‘Jobs don’t change that fast’

We’re told that “65% of primary aged children will, as adults, have jobs that do not currently exist.”

But this is not true: it’s a zombie stat that was debunked over five years ago by the Radio 4 programme More or Less.

Jobs don’t change that fast. Even if they did, that wouldn’t mean that we should completely upend the school curriculum.

A lot of cutting-edge skills depend on more fundamental skills like literacy and numeracy, and they date faster too, making it riskier to teach them in school. The alphabet and numbering system have outlasted the fax machine and the minidisc player.

MATs are an important conduit for any of the wider changes a minister would like to introduce. Yet there is just one mention of them

Whilst it is good at repeating debunked cliches about economic change, the report has little to say about many significant aspects of education.

One of the biggest issues the Department for Education deals with is the funding, expansion and regulation of multi-academy trusts (MATs).

‘Only one mention of MATs in this report’

Managing MATs will make up a large proportion of the workload of any future education minister, and MATs are also an important conduit for any of the wider changes a minister would like to introduce.

Yet there is just one mention of them in this report: a recommendation for local businesspeople to become MAT trustees.

There’s no mention, either, of the grass-roots evidence-based revolution that has swept over English classrooms in the last decade or so.

Many teachers have been empowered by learning about cognitive science and the way it can improve classroom practice, and many government initiatives, such as the early career framework and the Education Endowment Foundation, have helped to further develop the evidence base of the profession.

Indeed, not only does the report not mention the cognitive science revolution, it seems actively unaware of its findings.

‘Knowledge-rich curriculums are very effective’

One of its headline proposals is to introduce a National Curriculum Authority which would “be free from party political interference”.

In principle, this sounds great.

But then, literally on the very next page, the report goes on to presuppose the findings of this supposedly neutral curriculum authority in party political terms, telling us that the problem with the current “Conservative” curriculum is that it is “narrow”, “passive”, “prescriptive”, “knowledge-rich”, and not modern enough.

But if this National Curriculum Authority were permitted to look at the best evidence from cognitive science, it would conclude that knowledge-rich curriculums are very effective.

The report claims that our current education system is preparing students for jobs that don’t exist. That isn’t true.

But this report is preparing future Labour education ministers for an education system that doesn’t exist. As in 1997, we need a Labour education policy that understands the system we have, not one that is fighting yesterday’s battles.

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