Election 2024

Move slow and build: Labour’s manifesto offers hope

Some will criticise its lack of radicalism, says Liz Robinson, but its policies are grounded in respect for the profession – and that’s radical in itself

Some will criticise its lack of radicalism, says Liz Robinson, but its policies are grounded in respect for the profession – and that’s radical in itself

20 Jun 2024, 18:31

Changes in political leadership have in the past been characterised by huge pendulum swings between two seemingly irreconcilable approaches to education, on curriculum, pedagogy, structures and funding. So with polls indicating that the next government will be formed by the Labour party, I have been trying to figure out what it might mean for our pupils, teachers and communities.

Education has been dominated in recent years by a reductive narrative about ‘high standards’, which in practice means results in tests and exams.

As a result, attendance and recruitment are in crisis, with many adults and children simply not wanting to be in our schools. Meanwhile, the achievement gap is growing, as are mental health and wellbeing issues among young people.

Moving beyond this aggressively monotone view of schools and learning is evidently critical. So I am heartened to see Labour’s focus on raising the status of the profession, and there are glimmers of hope for a vision of learning that is ‘rich and broad, inclusive and innovative’, underpinned by a ‘balance of assessment methods’.

I have been unapologetically running schools along these more expansive principles for nearly two decades. There is much expertise and practice about what this can look like in reality, and I am encouraged that Labour’s plans could mean a new era of genuine excellence in state school education. 

Evolution not revolution 

Many have clearly been working hard to get the message to the Labour team not to ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’. Pleasingly, it seems that this message has been heard. Labour’s mission for education is carefully balanced as a result.

While some may rue a lack of radicalism, I think most will welcome the manifesto’s thoughtful approach to ‘keep, lose, introduce’: What is working can be left well alone, ‘excesses’ where a good idea has been taken too far can be cut back, and doing so will make space for new and different thinking.

This ‘integrative’ approach draws on interesting ideas from thinkers like Ken Wilbur, whose ‘spiral’ approach is all about drawing on and including the best from our current reality and evolving systems to include new and different thinking.

Looking back to 2010, many babies were indeed thrown out. The nuanced and ethical approach to policy making we are surely all hoping may come to pass with a new team was not what we experienced then.

The bonfire of quangos and dismantling of institutions and approaches were unedifying, and much good knowledge and expertise was lost. I’m pleased Labour aren’t proposing the same operation in reverse.

Rigour without mortis

There’s much to be said for the knowledge-rich curriculum approach for example, and schools have done a lot of good work on this over the past decade. For too long, however, pupils’ experience at school has been dominated by an approach to academic rigour which emphasises retention of knowledge above all else.

Our strapline at Surrey Square Primary School is ‘More Than A School’. We model a sophisticated approach to education based on the principle of ‘both/and’: rigour in our teaching of domain-specific knowledge, and rigour in the other vital aspects of a rounded education.

Rigour and joy are not mutually exclusive; in fact, done well they are mutually reinforcing. Joyful rigour is a worthwhile aim, not just in the occasional school but systemically.

In her upcoming book, Jenny Anderson talks about ‘high standards, deep support and broad pathways. I hope this characterises Labour’s new vision for our school system. 

Importantly though, should they win this election, Labour must ensure that their values and desire for change don’t get lost in the mire of immediate concerns and issues needing attention – or that gaining power doesn’t encourage them to “move fast and break things” in a bid to rewire the system.

There is a growing consensus that students’ experiences need to be broader, richer and more meaningful. Nothing will show respect for the status of the profession more than to resist another crashing swing of the pendulum to achieve that aim.

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