Election 2024

Labour can’t solve everything – but this is what they should prioritise

We stand at the dawn of a new era of education policy, says Russell Hobby. Here's what Labour should do

We stand at the dawn of a new era of education policy, says Russell Hobby. Here's what Labour should do

5 Jul 2024, 13:41

We stand at the dawn of a new era of education policy. Of course, many pressing problems are unchanged – recruitment and retention, SEND, funding, attendance – and there is no magic injection of cash pending.

But with new leadership comes new vision. Although education has not been a headline issue in the campaign (private school VAT aside), it was heartening to see the pledge to recruit 6,500 new teachers as one of the six first steps for change. And there is plenty of substance, on direction if not detail, in the Labour manifesto. 

Progress not pendulum

In thinking about constructive system change, we should list what is going well, what we have too much of, and what is missing. Success. Excess. Neglect. We want progress, not a swing of the pendulum from one extreme to another. 

This may not feel like the moment to dwell on past successes, but there were strong nods in Labour’s manifesto towards a knowledge-rich curriculum and the importance of accountability. So, while we expect reviews of both curriculum and inspection, these may not be as radical as some hope or fear. Personally, I would add the new NPQs and ECF to the list of achievements. 

On the matter of curriculum reviews, I would encourage the new government to pause on the RSHE proposals, which are deeply controversial, and build them into the wider curriculum review, allowing a much broader consultation. 

There is plenty of excess after fourteen years of one vision for education. The volume of content and the intensity of the pressure are both too high, leading to a stretched, exhausted and distressed feel across the system.  

Cut things out

When budgets are tight, there is one type of reform that is usually both welcome and cheap: cut things out. A good principle would be to remove two old burdens for each new burden that is added. Let’s focus on doing a few things really well and build space for the creativity and common sense of teachers to tackle their own unique problems.

We need to reform accountability to reduce some of the pressure in the system. Accountability is good, but it can be, and has been, taken too far. The current measures discriminate against those schools who serve vulnerable students and low-income communities.

Incentives matter: there is little point in reforming inspection labels, for example, if the consequences of inspection remain punitive, as the new labels will come to carry the old weight.  

So where are the big gaps? The school workforce has been neglected. We can’t achieve anything else of real ambition until we have the right number of talented people in the system, well treated and rewarded.

There is plenty to welcome in the manifesto here, from recruitment priorities to professional and leadership development. The question of pay looms large, though, as the first big challenge for the new secretary of state.

With funds tight, focus on disadvantage

And with limited additional funding available, the next government should weight additional resources towards schools serving disadvantaged communities – where it has the potential to make the biggest difference.    

The other area of neglect is the sense of education as a connected system, where what goes on inside the classroom is deeply affected by what is going on around it. We have not spent anywhere near enough time on the impacts of what happens before school, around school and after school.

A renewed commitment to early years and high-quality nursery education is hugely welcome. I would love to see the hints of interest in the extra- and co-curriculum come to life, to properly celebrate all the diverse talents that young people possess and give more of them a reason to look forward to school.

Above all, we must acknowledge that schools themselves, particularly in areas of high deprivation, have become miniature welfare states, picking up the pieces left by collapsing services elsewhere  We know 84% of teachers had spent more time helping pupils with mental health issues over the past academic year. So I know leaders are keen to see investment in wider children’s and local services. 

Poverty strategy would help schools

I was pleased to see the manifesto recognise the impact of childhood poverty on life chances and education outcomes. A strategy to reduce poverty would now be one of the most powerful school improvement strategies we have, alongside a substantial injection of school funding targeted towards schools serving disadvantaged communities.  

We have great teachers, leaders and support staff. We have well designed curricula and evidence-based approaches to pedagogy. Let’s create the conditions for these to flourish by ensuring that children come to school healthy, happy, well housed, well fed and full of optimism for the future.

If Labour can re-ignite economic growth, I want a rapid commitment to ending the two-child benefits cap and eradicating child poverty. The best way to narrow the disadvantage gap is to reduce disadvantage itself. 

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