Marking Labour’s education manifesto: could do better…

Labour’s manifesto shows that it wants to do an awful lot in education. But look for specifics and you’ll struggle, says Kiran Gill

If the polls are to be believed (even if they are not to be believed) the Labour manifesto is unlikely to be implemented next parliament. So I assessed it against some different marking criteria:

1    Challenging the government

One of the Opposition’s roles is to scrutinise legislation put forward by the government. Test no 1: does Labour’s manifesto point out gaps in the education agenda of Theresa May’s government?

2    Shifting the narrative 

The policy agenda is shaped by political narratives that become commonly accepted. Normally these narratives have to “fit” with current events as people perceive them. For instance, the policy of austerity was underpinned by a Conservative narrative that Labour had crashed the economy and a reduction of spending was required (though economists know this is false). This became accepted because it fitted with personal experiences of having to tighten belts. Test no 2: does the Labour manifesto develop narratives about education that fit with current experiences?

3    Planting good policy

Sometimes the contribution of parties not in government is to think through the solution to problems facing the country, then have those policies nicked by the party that is in government. Think: New Labour’s taxing of non-doms, originally a Lib Dem idea, or, more recently, Ed Miliband’s energy price-freeze policy pinched by  May. Test no 3: are there any good specific policy ideas that ought to be stolen?

Challenging the government
The most pressing problem in education is funding. School standards cannot be maintained, with cuts already having an impact on the curriculum offer, class sizes and the education of the most vulnerable students in many schools.

Labour’s manifesto highlights school funding. But as I told my year 11s many times in revision season: “If you highlight everything, you highlight nothing.” Which leads to our second measurement . . .

Shifting the narrative
To shift a narrative, you need a clear message. I counted 41 separate issues in the education section (compared with 12 in Miliband’s 2015 manifesto). The clearest message I can make out from this shopping list of policies is that Labour wants to do an awful lot – and it doesn’t mind spending the money to do it.

Pithy policy solutions are hard to come by

And that’s tricky territory. Remember our test for a narrative? It fits with public perceptions. The prevailing narrative around the Labour party was that it spends too much; Miliband’s 2015 loss was attributed to low public trust on the economy. So it is a shame that the very real and imminent danger of a decline in school standards is getting lost amongst Labour’s long wishlist; and little wonder that their education policy is being characterised as a “splurge” by tabloids such as the Daily Mail.

Planting good policy
The 2015 Labour manifesto contained many policies that were later implemented under the Conservatives. The proposed Technical Baccalaureate and the pledge for all students to study maths and English to 18 resembled the new “technical routes” announced last year. Age-appropriate relationships and sex education promised by Miliband was made a reality by Justine Greening this spring.

So does any of Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto capture the current mood in education and advocate a neat solution to a pressing problem?
On the first part, yes. The need for specialist training in SEND, more mental health support in schools, the challenge of teacher retention and the imperative for better access to adult education are all mentioned. Sadly, pithy policy solutions are harder to come by. The clearest recommendations – resurrecting the education maintenance allowance, expanding free school meals and scrapping tuition fees – have not had enough of a case made for them over the past few years, which means that voters (and educationists) are not demanding them. There are few other specifics for raising standards beyond more cash.

Overall, the marks don’t look good. But we teachers know it’s formative feedback, not summative judgment, that is important. Here’s hoping Labour learns from this manifesto and produces its best work next time.


Kiran Gill is a policy consultant, and founder of The Difference

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