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Twelve reasons education will feel different under Labour

Party politics isn’t just about differences in policy; it’s about different worldviews. Or mindsets, if you will.

I’ve been thinking quite hard about this recently, what with the almost certain change in government at the end of this week.

In the weeks since the prime minister called the election, manifestos have been pored over, every line analysed for meaning. “But what will Labour do once they’re in government,” I’m repeatedly asked.

In response, I normally point to the many policies that have been announced and the coherent agenda set out in the Opportunity Mission documents published last year.

But in the last few days, I’ve concluded that that is only half the story. 

Governing might be about deciding, as the old political proverb goes, but it’s also about leading. It’s also about signalling what’s important. It’s about showing a way forward. Especially when money is tight, tight, tight.

And that, then, is what I’m trying to do with this article. What I want to do is suggest that a Labour Department for Education, almost certainly led by Bridget Phillipson, will approach the job of overseeing the schools system with a different mindset to that which we’ve seen in the past 14 years.

Indeed, because it’s been so long since 2010, it’s hard to remember just how different political leadership looked under Labour.

And so I present for you a list. It’s imperfect, far from exhaustive, and by its very nature it’s subjective. 

Before the policy geeks jump on me, picking holes in it: this is not a list of policies, nor is it a legislative agenda. It’s more a series of signposts as to the values that Labour people will bring to bear when they’re doing the tough job of governing. It’s the prism through which they will see the many challenges they will inherit.

So here goes.

1. Labour generally views state comprehensive education as a good in and of itself. It is a democratising act. It is not a brake on ambition or aspiration.

2. It believes that, on the whole, a career as a classroom teacher is a morally good thing. State school teachers are seen as morally allied to the Labour movement.  They deserve to be seen as more than just collateral in an accountability system. They are not the “producer interest”, there to be beaten back.

3. Relatedly, the education unions have a democratic right to be seen as the representatives of the teaching profession and should play a role in helping to think about policy and its implementation. It’s easy to forget that throughout the New Labour years, many of the major unions were part of a formal DfE consultation group called the Social Partnership.  

4. Broadly speaking, Labour thinks creativity should be seen as central to the curriculum and not just a nice to have once the core academic curriculum has been covered off.

5. Relatedly, it thinks that significantly developing enrichment activities and the co-curriculum in the poorest areas should be seen as a central tenet of levelling the playing field (boom boom).

6. Perhaps obviously, Labour believes the poorest young people should be worthy of the greatest attention.

7. It views social mobility as quite an individualistic construct; better to think about socially mobile communities or places.

8. Labour believes going to university (including local, comprehensive universities) should be seen as, in almost all contexts, an unalloyed good. It views attacks on higher education as a silly culture war game.

9. It understands that the attendance crisis is a systemic problem, not something that can be seen in isolation and solved with a pull of a policy lever here or there.

10. Labour believes strongly that the way that schools rub up against SEND / CAMHS / children’s services / childcare is as important a policy area as education itself.

11. It wants schools to be moral, civic anchors that exist to support communities, not just achieve exam results.

12. It believes public sector collaboration is comfortably as important as public sector competition if standards are to be improved.

You’ll note, for example, that Ofsted isn’t on this list. That’s because, for the purposes of this article, reforming Ofsted is a policy issue. However, you can see how many of these ways of thinking about the world inform the direction of travel when it comes Labour’s plans to replace one-word judgements with a balanced score card. And importantly the content of that scorecard.

The same goes for policy areas such as public sector pay, funding and curriculum reform. And you can also see the influence of this worldview in the New Labour success stories: Sure Start and the London Challenge, for example.

My list is slightly silly and certainty subjective. But I do hope it also points to a vaguely profound truth: working in a school system run by Labour will feel very different to today.

Hopefully, it might even feel better.

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