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General Election 2015

News

The Labour Party resurrects past education policies, but will they work?

(14 April 2015)

Professor Steve Higgins, from Durham's School of Education, responds to the Labour Party's manifesto on school policies.

Labour sees education as an investment, in terms of both personal fulfilment and economic prosperity, and intends to protect the education budget from early years to post-16 education. It also acknowledges that the education of half of the school population in secondary schools needs serious re-thinking. Its manifesto identifies six key policy areas as:

  • Introducing a new Technical Baccalaureate for 16 to-18-year olds
  • Protecting the education budget from early years through to post-16 education
  • Guarantee that all teachers in state schools will be qualified, with the re-introduction of qualified teacher status
  • Appointing Directors of School Standards to drive up standards in every area
  • Capping class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds at 30 or under
  • Ensuring all young people study English and Maths to age 18

It is certainly the case that post-16 education is a mess and needs significant attention. Labour’s plans are for flagship Institutes of Technical Education as trail-blazers, but how they will raise the standard and status of vocational and technical education, a worthy aspiration, is unclear.

To convince employers this will be a “gold-standard qualification” and they will provide accreditation. Face-to-face careers advice and the promise of work experience for 14 to 16-year-olds and more apprenticeships is attempting to tackle a very real issue, but the logistical and financial challenge of this should not be underestimated.

Zombie policies

Qualified teacher status will be compulsory again, with teachers able to gain “Master Teacher” status, but will also be required to keep their knowledge and skills up to date, presumably monitored by the new College of Teaching, which Labour also endorses. Teach First also gets a thumbs up, so presumably the diversity of routes into teaching will remain.

It looks like the National College for Teaching and Leadership is going to be rebranded as the School Leadership Institute, just how similar this will be to the former National College for School Leadership (or even the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children’s Services) has yet to be seen; how this will work with the new College of Teaching is unclear. Where will the responsibility for teacher recruitment lie? This will certainly be a challenging issue with increasing rolls and poor teacher retention.

This table tennis of reinstating policies and bodies may well be frustrating for the profession. We will see yet more sparkle with “gold-standard” headship qualifications, just so long as they don’t call it the National Professional Qualification for Headteachers (NPQH) which was (briefly) made mandatory in 2009.

Smaller class sizes, always popular with parents, are assured, with a cap at 30 re-introduced for five to seven year olds, but no acknowledgement that smaller classes are a poor investment in most circumstances in England. Evidence-based policy may face something of a threat.

Gold standards?

A few other policies seem to echo the Conservatives. Directors of School Standards will be appointed at a local level to monitor performance and intervene in under-performing schools to support them to improve. We already have eight regional schools commissioners, who take on key decisions regarding academies and free schools, so perhaps the number and remit will change, especially as the free schools programme will be terminated.

What’s missing, of course, is the detail on how they will achieve this, both in terms of what “gold standard” means for the Technical Baccalaureate, how accreditation by employers will work, where the half million or so work placements will be found each year as well as other crucial issues such as how the budget will be “protected” in times of fiscal squeeze.

Will careers advisors and work experience placements receive additional funding, or will this need to be found from existing, but protected budgets? The devil will also be in the detail of how the assessment and inspection of the technical route is balanced with the academic assessment currently undertaken by Ofsted. How will they ensure that pupils are sufficiently challenged to achieve and that schools do not game the system (as some have understandably become expert at) between the academic and vocational, so that disadvantage does not become synonymous with vocational?

Originally published by The Conversation

The Conversation