Politics

Inside the battle to shape the Labour party’s education reforms

The party's latest report has prompted heated debate between so-called 'progressives' and 'traditionalists'

The party's latest report has prompted heated debate between so-called 'progressives' and 'traditionalists'

5 Nov 2022, 5:00

Investigation

The fight to shape Labour’s education policies has burst into life, with so-called “progressive” educationists and “traditional” teachers battling it out to influence the party’s schools manifesto.

Last week, a group of 165 teachers who favour traditional teaching methods and a knowledge-rich curriculum formed the Campaign for Evidence-Informed Teaching (CEIT), in the hope of influencing future policies.

In response, a “broad coalition” of about 300 educationists have set up The Educators Alliance (TEA).

Labour's
David Blunkett

The group wants Labour to create “a more diverse education system” with a “wide range of approaches” that “work for all young people”, for example by improving access to creative subjects or potentially rethinking the current emphasis on “high-stakes terminal exams”.

Both groups have published open letters responding to Lord David Blunkett’s Learning and Skills report, which was commissioned by Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, to help to inform the party’s manifesto. The report was published last week.

Adam Smith, a primary teacher from south London, criticised the report for not representing teachers’ views. He tweeted that anyone who wanted to join a centre-left pressure group to influence Labour’s education policy should get in touch and “went out to have a coffee”.

In less than 24 hours, the group had gathered 125 members and more than 2,000 followers of its Twitter handle, @CEITeaching.

CEIT founder ‘shocked’ by AstroTurf claims

“The positive support was really nice,” Smith says. “But I was also shocked by the accusations. It did not occur to me people would think we were AstroTurf – or some kind of Tory pressure group.”

In 2016, the Parents and Teachers for Excellence group was set up, claiming to be a grassroots movement to move the debate from the “elites in Whitehall” and mobilise parents and teachers to make the case for education reform.

But Schools Week later revealed one of its directors was Tory donor Jon Moynihan, a venture capitalist and Vote Leave campaigner.

The group was also orchestrated by policy reformers linked to Michael Gove – drawing parallels with what is known as “AstroTurfing”, the practice of masking sponsors of an organisation to push a public relations campaign as a grassroots movement.

Smith believes his members are “mostly” Labour voters who are either teachers or senior leaders. He says they want to be “consulted more actively in the formation stages of policy. We’re engaging in this, because this is how democracy is supposed to work, right?”

He found the idea that the group might be receiving external funding laughable: “No, it’s not.”

‘We know these approaches work’

The teachers in CEIT understand the importance and the value of a knowledge-rich curriculum and more direct, explicit forms of teaching, he says. “We know these approaches work in our classrooms.”

They have united to convince Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary. “We are in a fight for our voice to be heard by the Labour party.”

He says education reforms since his time as a pupil have been “hard won… I genuinely believe if you think there is a way to do things that is good, then part of your responsibility as a citizen is to talk to people about that and try to influence them to agree with you… And to fight for it.”

But TEA spokesperson Dr James Mannion, podcast host and director of the teacher training organisation Rethinking Education, says it is not a battle “because what we’re trying to do is much bigger than what CEIT is trying to do.

“And we really welcome their contributions to the debate as one set of voices among many.”

He admits that “in a way” his group has “sprung up” in response to CEIT but denies this means there is now a contest between “progs” and “trads” to influence policy.

“We’re not interested in continuing this tired debate between the so-called traditionalists and progressives – the vast majority of teachers don’t identify strongly either way, and lots of people’s practices are shared.”

He says TEA wants Labour to listen to everyone involved in education – not just teachers – to get a “broader” range of “more representative” views than those expressed by CEIT.

“The system at the moment clearly doesn’t work for many young people,” he says. But when parents feel their kid is in a school that’s at odds with their values, often “there’s no other option available”.

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