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Election Notebook

Labour’s plan to turn back the clock on education

Corbyn proposes the most significant transferral of power back to town halls for more than a generation

Jeremy Corbyn fought the 2017 general election on manifesto pledges that were far less ambitious than the hopes or fears excited by his platform rhetoric. On polling day, his party trailed the Conservatives by only 2.4 per cent.

Emboldened by that success, the restraint has gone. Labour’s 2019 election manifesto is more radical and ambitious than any it has offered to the electorate since 1945.

Comparisons have inevitably been made with The New Hope for Britain (as the Party’s 1983 manifesto was originally titled before Gerald Kaufman’s “longest suicide note in history” quip gained near universal coinage). Yet, Michael Foot was not promising to nationalise rail, mail, water and electricity supply because they were already in the government’s care, as was BT. Openreach was as unheard of as the internet. The 1983 manifesto acknowledged much of the world as it was at that time. It might be suggested that the 2019 version fits equally easily with that era.

We are back to the world of Nye Bevan and Manny Shinwell

In fact, It’s Time for Real Change seeks to a return to an earlier Britain. This year’s Labour manifesto is revolutionary in the original sense of the term. It revolves full circle back to the starting position. We are back to the world of Nye Bevan and Manny Shinwell.

With £84 billion of direct funding commitments raised by taxing business and the massed battalions of the country’s billionaires, there is so much to examine that initial responses have necessarily been panoramic rather than detailed. But every section needs to in be taken seriously and analysed on its own terms.

Particularly worthy of attention are Labour’s proposed reforms to schooling. The headline reform promises a cradle-to-grave National Education Service (NES), as lifelong and comprehensive as the NHS, but vaguer about the reality of provision.

The abolition of independent schools, as mandated by the party conference, has been rephrased: Labour “will ask the Social Justice Commission to advise on integrating private schools and creating a comprehensive education system.” What does “integrated” mean? Integrated in the sense of twinning with neighbouring state schools so that the latter’s pupils have better access to learning Classics? Or in the way that the Baltic States were integrated into the USSR?

Having learned their lesson from their promise to bring back fox hunting in 2017, the Tories are not going to dance to Corbyn’s tune which lyricises them as the party of toffs and privilege. So the fate of the country’s most academically successful schools will not be raised by Boris Johnson this time round.

But what of the changes that will affect the vast majority of schools and pupils? Being snuffed out are the benefits that encouraged so many maintained (local authority administered) schools to seek academy status and for free schools to be set-up. The freedom of academy trusts enjoyed in making their own budgetary decisions and to run their schools’ affairs, from hiring staff to deciding how closely to follow the National Curriculum will end. Such practices are dismissed as “over-centralised, inefficient and undemocratic.”

The transferral of free school and academy trust freedoms to the local authorities’ control effectively brings all state schools back within the maintained sector, the most significant transferral of power back to town halls for more than a generation.

This will have far-reaching consequences for the nearly 3.8 million pupils that attend academies and free schools in England (because of devolution, there are no such schools in Scotland or Wales). More than 70 per cent of secondary pupils and almost 30 per cent of primary pupils will have the status and powers of their schools taken back by local government and integrated into Labour’s new NES.

The manifesto states that “vulnerable children are being let down” by academy schools and free schools. In what way, we do not learn. Despite the relative freedom in establishing their own policies that these school enjoy, they are prohibited from imposing fees, or from setting any academic or IQ-based admission criteria for admission.

Labour’s manifesto also states that “there is no evidence that academies deliver better results.” Evidence is certainly contested, depending as it does upon what weighting and compensating factors are applied to the raw data, but to claim that there is “no evidence” is audacious. 

Measured by the percentage of their pupils who achieve five or more grade A*-C GSCEs, the average for academies is higher than for maintained schools.

Some of the best maintained schools opted to become academies and it may be argued that their continuing high performance therefore has little to do with a change of status. 

But academies are not necessarily in the best catchment areas. Indeed, those that are “sponsored academies” were previously either failing schools or “in special measures”. Although there are now some inspiring exceptions, such schools, on average get less good GCSE results than the maintained sector average. But that is not the same as stating that their results have not improved compared to where they were before they changed to academy status.

Whatever their previous performance, academies pre-existed in the maintained sector and often bring some traces of that DNA with them. Not so free schools which are new foundations. Ofsted’s 2019 findings show that 18 per cent of primary schools are rated outstanding overall. The figure for those that are free schools is 37 per cent. The margins are closer at secondary school level (21 per cent of all secondaries, 27 per cent for those that are free schools), but hardly “no evidence” of better results.

We have such measurements of performance thanks to the work of Ofsted – which Labour’s manifesto promises to abolish. Its powers are to be transferred to “a new body.” Although the manifesto does not say so, the new body will scrap overall schools’ grades, ending the clearest means for determining how school results compare.

These statistics were always a blunt instrument, but there is a fear that the measurements Ofsted’s replacement will devise will be so contextualised (in order to achieve the stated aim of being collaborative rather than competitive) as to be uninterpretable.

It’s an end result welcomed by Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union. Ofsted’s inspections were responsible, she has said for encouraging teachers to quit because they were left “defeated and worn down by excessive workload and stress.”

Ofsted has certainly not endeared itself to many of those that it tests. But with the transferral of powers back to local councils, will the new regime end up facilitating a classic case of a vested interest “marking its own homework?”

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