Labour’s policies reveal dividing lines are forming

Starmer's conference pledges lack detail, but it would be unfair to expect a fully-developed platform at this stage, writes Tom Richmond

Starmer's conference pledges lack detail, but it would be unfair to expect a fully-developed platform at this stage, writes Tom Richmond

1 Oct 2021, 16:59

A Conservative government is well entrenched in Downing Street after inflicting a crushing defeat on the Labour Party at the previous election.

Under pressure, Labour’s leader is struggling to get his message across, and the public have yet to warm to him.

As part of their efforts to seize back the initiative, Labour declare that they will withdraw charitable status from private schools as well as their other public subsidies and tax privileges. The year is 1983.

Fast forward almost forty years, and Keir Starmer is putting his faith in the same agenda.

If he becomes prime minister, Labour would end the charitable status of private schools, raising an estimated £1.6 billion from VAT and a further £100 million from business rates.

Private school heads and other sector leaders are unamused.

Such a move would potentially bring about the demise of many smaller private schools, forcing the government to spend more educating those same pupils in the state sector.

This alone would not eliminate the £1.6 billion savings that Labour is hoping to generate, but it would chip away at it nonetheless.

One could try to get around this problem by converting any faltering private schools into state-funded academies instead, following the pioneering path of the likes of Belvedere School in Liverpool.

Even so, flipping one school from private to state is a very different challenge from delivering the same goal at scale in a short timeframe.

Some private schools would need to slash their spending to survive on government per-pupil funding rates rather than fees from parents, while finding a way to swallow a substantial hike in pension contributions would present yet another formidable obstacle to any private schools who wish to tread this policy path.

Ofsted reform sounds nice in theory

Other announcements from the Labour conference also suffer from a lack of small print.

Reforming Ofsted “to focus on supporting struggling schools” sounds nice in theory, particularly in light of Ofsted’s punitive grading system.

Regardless, there are good reasons to keep a clear dividing line between those judging schools (Ofsted) and those improving schools (local authorities and school trusts).

If Ofsted was in charge of improving the same school that they just graded as ‘inadequate’, there is a danger that Ofsted would end up marking its own homework at the next inspection.

In contrast, if Ofsted merely offered struggling schools more “support” (e.g. helping them link to other schools that have been on the same improvement journey) then this may lead to more constructive conversations.

Alongside reforming private schools and Ofsted, we’ve also heard Labour promise more teachers and more money for high-quality professional development – both of which are welcome and both of which are a lot easier to say than do.

In addition, the proposal to give every school access to a professional mental health counsellor to “support pupils and resolve problems before they escalate” alongside creating community-based “mental health hubs” would be encouraging steps.

However, the sum of money needed to deliver the required quality and quantity of services could easily dwarf the savings from trimming private school tax breaks.

New curriculum will worry ‘learning styles’ critics

Finally, and perhaps inevitably, we have been offered “a curriculum for tomorrow” that would put digital skills on a par with reading, writing and maths – possibly based on Labour’s recent initiatives with digital education in Wales.

The mere mention of the need to cater to “individual work styles” will inevitably worry those who are keen to put the final nail in the coffin of the rightly-maligned “learning styles”, while the claim that “artificial intelligence can help tuition” is best left to one side until we are offered some tangible examples.

It would be unfair to expect Labour to have a fully developed policy platform at this point in the electoral cycle, yet we are starting to see the first signs of the dividing lines that may come into sharper focus over the next few years.

That said, Labour’s manifesto for the 1983 election, which included the pledge to end the charitable status of private schools, was famously described by one of their own MPs as “the longest suicide note in history”.

The current Labour frontbench will be hoping for a more positive outcome this time around.

Tom Richmond is a former government education adviser and director of the EDSK think tank.

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