Lucy Powell MP
By Tom Richmond
As the DfE makes remarkably similar plans for education to those in Labour’s 2015 manifesto, the opposition would do well not to attack them too vehemently
They say that a week is a long time in politics, which is presumably why the 2015 general election is already a distant memory.Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg are now little more than political footnotes, such was the dramatic and unexpected nature of the results. Not only is the 2015 election consigned to history, but the manifestos published by each party are nowhere to be seen.
While the political arena has moved on at a frenetic pace since the election, and many new debates have emerged, several education issues remain as pertinent now as they were a year ago. But some of the thinking behind Labour’s election manifesto was more prescient than they could have imagined.
Let’s start with Labour’s proposal for directors of school standards. The coalition’s decision to introduce eight regional schools commissioners (RSCs) in September 2014 was an attempt to distance ministers at the Department for Education (DfE) from tough decisions about underperforming academies and about the approval of new free schools.
Concerns emerged about the enormous geographical regions that the RSCs would be responsible for, particularly as they have only a handful of civil servants to support them.
Confusion over their role and wider relationships with Ofsted and local authorities did not help. When questioned about RSCs by the Commons Education Select Committee a few months after she became education secretary, Nicky Morgan maintained that they did not need any more. The DfE has held its nerve on the matter ever since.
However, the news that all maintained schools will become academies by 2020 heaps yet more pressure on RSCs, as they will be responsible for about 3,000 schools each. (For comparison: the largest academy chain in England currently consists of 67 schools.) Directors of school standards would have operated at a much smaller scale than RSCs, with 30-40 of them to “monitor performance, intervene in underperforming schools and support them to improve.”
Although it went unnoticed at the time, Sir Theodore Agnew, then a non-executive DfE director and chair of its academies board, told the Education Select Committee: “If all schools become academies, I’d see there being maybe 30 regional school commissioners” – precisely what Labour was proposing.
Last month’s White Paper piled even more responsibility on to the RSCs, while glibly noting that the DfE will “ensure RSCs have the resources necessary to deliver their remit”. It’s possible the RSCs will, through no fault of their own, become overwhelmed by their ever-expanding role. This could put Labour’s manifesto in the smug position of being able to say “we told you so”, while at the same time offering a more pragmatic solution.
Blurring the party lines
Other parts of Labour’s manifesto have an equally prophetic air about them. In July 2015, the government revealed plans for technology institutes that would “deliver high-standard provision at levels 3, 4 and 5”. These are remarkably similar to Labour’s plans to “transform high-performing FE colleges with strong links to industry into new specialist Institutes of Technical Education, with a remit to deliver …higher-level skills.”
Labour may also have raised an eyebrow at the plans announced by skills minister Nick Boles in November 2015 to create a new set of vocational routes for young people at age 16, to “ensure young people get the skills employers are looking for”, seeing as its election manifesto included plans to “raise the standard and status of vocational and technical education, with a high-quality vocational route from school through to employment”.
Add to all that Labour’s plans for all students to continue maths to age 18 (the government is launching a review on this), and then its focus on school-leadership training, including “gold-standard headship qualifications” (echoed by the DfE’s proposal in for “gold-standard” national professional qualifications for each level of leadership). Perhaps without realising, Labour has chalked up quite a few victories since election day.
Standard of the opposition
It isn’t just its manifesto that Labour can point to for examples of discerning policymaking. The prospect of Ofsted no longer observing lessons is tantalisingly close after last month’s White Paper. This suggests that Morgan might be willing to nudge Ofsted towards a different inspection model, which could reignite Labour’s call to replace the inspectorate with a peer-review system.
Labour’s demand in 2014 for private schools to be stripped of generous state subsidies unless they support other institutions was another fault line between the parties. This government has shown no appetite for curbing the private sector. But the tight funding settlement for state-funded schools and colleges, plus the need to identify large numbers of new academy sponsors, may force the DfE to reconsider its “nothing to see here” stance.
Even during my time as a ministerial adviser at the DfE, I was – and still am – keen to learn about innovative policies, irrespective of who published them. (Although, unsurprisingly, ministers were not quite so impartial.)
Labour’s election manifesto evidently failed to inspire the nation to vote for Miliband. That being said, it would be wrong to assume that its ideas and critiques of government policy did not hold true.
The shadow education secretary, Lucy Powell, is walking a tightrope on divisive topics. Should the party that set up the first academies oppose academisation? Should free schools be closed or ignored? While Ms Powell continues to grapple with these issues, I suggest that she dusts off a copy of Labour’s 2015 manifesto. To figure out where Labour’s education policies should go next, she would do well to remind herself where they’ve been.
Tom Richmond is a teacher and former adviser to the DfE