Labour Party’s Education Policy Review

Former Education Secretary David Blunkett has published his report for the Labour Party’s education policy review, recommending a strategy for school improvement based on local oversight of schools – but not for schools to return to local authority control. The review made bold recommendations relating to school oversight, sponsored academy chains and qualifications. The policy document also repeated previous policy announcements such as mandating that all teachers have Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) and that Labour would expand free childcare from 15 to 25 hours a week for working parents of three and four year olds.

This summary focuses on the latest proposals…

School oversight

The core recommendation of his review is that oversight functions currently exercised centrally by the Education Secretary would be devolved to the new post of an independent director of school standards “at the local level”.  Blunkett says these local directors of school standards will monitor, support and challenge schools to improve, driving up standards in underperforming and “fragile” schools. Local oversight of all state-funded schools, including academies and free schools, will ensure that this kind of underperformance will be addressed.

The review argues that the directors will be appointed locally, be accountable locally, and that they will be free to bring both pressure and support where needed. Blunkett says local authorities will work with the directors of school standards to “ensure local intelligence and data are at the heart of decision-making”. He adds that LAs “will focus on being the voice and advocate for pupils and parents”.

Blunkett says Labour will establish reconstituted Local Education Authorities to oversee schools in a local area, which will draw from councils, teachers, parents, employers, colleges and universities. The LEA’s responsibility will be to develop and ensure the quality of education in their area.

Olly from PSI: The proposal for local directors and LEAs aligns with the Coalition’s recent establishment of Regional School Commissioners and the plans for Headteacher Boards, the crucial difference being that local councils will have formal links to the directors and LEAs unlike with the current Government’s plans.

End private sponsorship of school chains

Blunkett says Labour will end privately sponsored chains, so “no state-funded schools should be ‘sponsored’ or controlled by private organisations”. He says that “markets do not work in education and collaboration trumps competition every time”. This is a threat to clamp down on the introduction of market forces into education policy.

Olly from PSI: This is actually less threatening than the language suggests, as private organisations cannot control state schools at present and all sponsors and chains are non-for-profit charitable trusts. This does however suggest that Labour may look to end the use of ‘subsidiary’ companies that serve as the profitable arm of the academy chains to procure goods and services for their schools, which many argue encourages valuable investment in the schools sector and allows schools to buy-in additional services that LAs were previously reluctant to fund.

School attainment

Blunkett’s review makes a commitment to change the school exam system, arguing that the “GCSE is an inadequate analogue for judging success” and needs to be replaced by something much better. He says “we desperately need a comprehensive curriculum that will enable all pupils to fulfil their potential as human beings and not just as economic units of production”. There is a damning criticism of the exam focused education system – an opinion widely shared by educational experts – although, ironically, Blunkett nurtured this system as Education Secretary.

Blunkett says Labour will:

1. Introduce a comprehensive 14-19 curriculum aimed at developing the talents, aptitudes and abilities of all students which in the process provides a sound foundation for adult and working life, and for future learning. Scrap the GCSE examination which has run its useful course and bring in a unified Secondary Diploma at 18, summarising attainment across a range of learning activity and providing rich information about students, their talents and abilities across a wide spectrum.

2. Commission the development of new modular courses linking skills and knowledge, the academic and the vocational, designed to enable students across the ability range to develop their abilities to the full. These courses will form the basis for accreditation through the new Secondary Diploma. They will encourage collaboration between schools and colleges to maximise learning opportunities for students, particularly, but not solely, in technical areas of study.

3. Introduce apprenticeships for all not following HE and for recent graduates entering first careers. High quality apprenticeships will be made available to all school leavers who choose not to attend university to develop the highly skilled, adaptable workforce needed to compete effectively in the world marketplace. A similar programme for graduates entering the workforce will be developed and provision will be made for ongoing education and training for the whole workforce to constantly update and improve skill levels.

4. Create a unified post-18 sector offering a range of networked pathways for students of all ages and abilities via a variety of modes of attendance and funding. Blunkett says we have long neglected those who leave the education system at the statutory age.

Olly from PSI: This is a bold leap for Labour, considering they had criticised the Coalition for tampering with the exam system. Schools, teachers, exam boards and universities will not want further curriculum reform so it will be interesting to see how hard Labour pushes these proposals. The focus on 14-19 curriculum and vocational education align with the comments of former Conservative Education Secretary Ken Baker, the champion of University Technical Colleges, although Labour has not said whether they back the schools.