What will schools policy look like under a Labour government?

Opposition takes soundings from unexpected partners as it prepares for next year's anticipated election

Opposition takes soundings from unexpected partners as it prepares for next year's anticipated election

Long read

The Labour Party’s shadow education team is building closer links with the academies sector and taking soundings from a prominent think tank with strong ties to the Conservatives as it prepares to flesh out its education policies.

Sir Keir Starmer, the party leader, last week pledged to reform the education system if his party wins power, promising “real-world impact” and consultation with experts and frontline staff.

Education was one of five “missions” he outlined in a speech in Manchester, but he is not expected to flesh out any details until later this year, with “measurable ambitions” and “some of the first tangible steps” planned.

He said his shadow cabinet would meet both “frontline practitioners” and experts – “we still believe in them” – to shape each mission.

Those discussions about its future have recently ramped up after it largely discarded its 2019 manifesto. We spoke to sources familiar with the policymaking process about the ideas under discussion and who is helping to form them.

Childcare will take centre stage

Schools policy is likely to be eclipsed as a priority as the party focuses limited spending power elsewhere.

Childcare is seen as an area in which Labour can make quicker economic wins at a time of financial crisis and as concerns grow about workforce availability.

School reforms, on the other hand, can take decades to make an impact, so a spending bonanza is unlikely unless there is a marked improvement in the country’s fortunes.

That said, Labour’s childcare reforms will extend into the classroom.

The party has already said it will provide schools with resources to provide extra-curricular activities outside traditional hours, and has vowed to introduce free breakfast clubs for all primary pupils.

No sweeping assessment reform

Despite the appointment of School 21 founder Peter Hyman – a prominent opponent of GCSEs – as an adviser to Starmer, it is understood there is little appetite in the short term for significant assessment reform.

Nor will the party immediately tinker with what is actually taught in schools.

Labour has committed to a review of the curriculum, but this is likely to focus on Starmer’s pledge to build in digital and life skills, rather than ripping it up and starting from scratch.

However, Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, and her team are understood to be keen to look at how to curb the negative impact of certain accountability levers such as the English Baccalaureate.

The baccalaureate, which measures schools on the proportion of pupils entered for five core academic subject groups, has been blamed for a decline in the take-up of arts subjects.

The government is also still a long way off its target of 90 per cent participation in the English Bacc, with a shortage of language teachers keeping entries in French, German and Spanish lower than desired.

Next Ofsted chief could have brief tenure

Ofsted is expected to turn its focus to school improvement under a Labour government, with the length and frequency of inspections also up for review.

Labour has also said it will introduce inspections of multi-academy trusts themselves. Currently, groups of schools in the same trust are batch-inspected in so-called summary evaluations, but the back-office function is not assessed.

These potentially big changes, coupled with the fact the next chief inspector is due to be chosen by the Conservative government in the next few months, present a problem for Labour.

Insiders say it is possible Amanda Spielman’s replacement could be asked to stand aside if the party wins the election.

Academies are here to stay

Labour’s stance on academies has softened in recent years, in part due to an acceptance that academisation is now all but impossible to reverse. Four in five secondary schools and two in five primarieds are now academies.

Phillipson and Stephen Morgan, the shadow schools minister, have made clear the dual system is here to stay.

Stephen Morgan
Stephen Morgan

Although the party won’t force well-performing schools to convert, schools will still be allowed to choose to become academies. Morgan also said the party would protect the right of single-academy trusts to continue to stand alone.

Labour would also retain the power to convert failing council-maintained schools, and would not scrap the free schools programme, as it pledged to under Jeremy Corbyn.

However, the party has said it will try to bring the two sectors closer together.

Morgan told Schools Week last year his party was planning its own schools bill, which would force all schools to follow the national curriculum and give councils powers over admissions to academies.

Elements of the government’s now abandoned school reforms, such as plans for a home education register and greater powers to curb unregistered schools, will also be resurrected, although shadow ministers intend to take a “different approach”.

Party takes soundings from a wider pool

Steve Rollett
Steve Rollett

Labour’s change in direction on academies is well illustrated by its increased engagement with the Confederation of School Trusts (CST).

Phillipson and Morgan were both recent guests at the organisation’s annual reception, and Schools Week understands senior figures meet regularly with the CST’s leadership.

Steve Rollett, the CST’s deputy chief executive, said the organisation was “apolitical and as the sector body for school trusts we work with a range of political parties and organisations, explaining the benefits to children of schools being in a trust”.

Labour has also widened the pool of policy wonks and think tanks that it takes advice from.

Unsurprisingly, the front bench still takes soundings from education unions, and Tony Blair’s Institute for Global Change and the Institute for Public Policy Research are understood to be influential.

Think tank prepares for a Labour government

But perhaps more surprising is the involvement of Public First, a consultancy once synonymous with the Conservatives (its founder, Rachel Wolf, set up the New Schools Network and co-wrote the Tories’ 2019 manifesto).

Ed Dorrell
Ed Dorrell

Public First appears to be gearing up for a changing of the guard. It recently recruited a handful of ex-Labour staffers.

And it is understood director Ed Dorrell, the former deputy editor of Tes magazine, is leading the organisation’s work with the shadow education team.

Phillipson and her colleagues are said to have taken a particular interest in research by the consultancy last year on behalf of Unison and the heads’ union NAHT.

The report recommended a combined focus on life skills and literacy and numeracy, “open, transparent community schools”, improved Ofsted engagement with parents and a “pragmatic” approach to school structures.

Education knights join the roundtable

Sir Kevan Collins, the government’s former catch-up tsar, has advised shadow ministers on pandemic recovery, while Sir David Carter, the former national schools commissioner, is understood to have been involved in discussions about academy trusts.

Sir David Bell, vice-chancellor of Phillipson’s local University of Sunderland, is also understood to have been consulted on education issues, as has Jonathan Slater, a former DfE permanent secretary.

Party grandees also remain influential. For example, Lord Blunkett, the former education secretary, led a recent review of skills policy.

A Labour source said: “As would be expected, Bridget speaks to a wide range of stakeholders about the future of the education system.

“But be in no doubt: under a Labour government the only person responsible for setting education policy will be the secretary of state for education.”

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