What Labour will need to do to raise education standards

By Geoff Barton
General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

With a lead of over 20% in the opinion polls, it might be argued that Labour doesn’t have to worry too much about setting out detailed policies ahead of the next General Election. Indeed, doing so might actually damage their electoral prospects by giving their opponents something to attack or copy.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that Sir Keir Starmer’s big speech yesterday, setting out Labour’s five ‘missions’ for Britain, was somewhat skimpy on detail.

It is difficult to believe that many people would disagree with anything he said – growing the economy, making Britain a “clean energy superpower”, improving the NHS, reforming the justice system, and raising education standards.

The crucial question, of course, is how Labour intends to do these things. We’re told that there will be more detail later in the year. But in the meantime, let’s have a closer look at one of those missions – education. 

Mission four
This is what Sir Keir Starmer said:

Mission four – break down the barriers to opportunity at every stage, for every child, by reforming childcare, reforming education, raising standards everywhere and preparing young people for work and life.”

Vague or not, we can probably all agree with the ambition here. On reform, our education system works well for about two-thirds of young people, but not so well for the remaining third. 

At ASCL we’ve done a lot of work on how this might be improved in our independent commission on The Forgotten Third and our Blueprint for a Fairer Education System. Suffice to say that there is a clear case for the right reforms.

And doing better for these young people would indeed achieve Labour’s objectives of raising education standards, breaking down the barriers to opportunity, ending some of the snobbery about vocational and technical education, and preparing all young people for work and life.

However, given that this would entail a great deal of policy detail, let’s set out at this stage some essential prerequisites.

The first of these – and the most obvious – is an increased level of financial investment in education at all phases: early years, schools and post-16. The moral case for doing so is obviously to improve the life chances of all young people, but the economic case is also very clear.

In his speech, Sir Keir strikingly described the penalty the country has paid for a decade of economic stagnation: “Let’s me spell it out - if growth over the last 13 years had been as strong as under the last Labour government, we would have £40bn extra to spend on schools and the NHS without a single extra penny in tax.”

I would argue that a key driver to growth is investment in education. It stands to reason that if young people are equipped with the skills and knowledge to excel in a variety of industries and professions, then this will produce the wealth the country needs. 

It isn’t a quick fix. But had the current government invested in education over the past decade instead of implementing real-terms cuts, then such investment would now be bearing fruit.

And it isn’t just us who see investment in education as intrinsic to prosperity. 

Interviewed in iNews earlier this month, Paul Johnson, Director of the highly respected think tank the Institute for Fiscal Studies, said he would be looking at education and spending on further education and skills in promoting long-term growth.

Teacher supply
So, investment is the first foundation of reforming education and raising standards. The second is improving the dire state of teacher supply. You all know the figures by now – far too few graduates become teachers, far too many leave early in their careers.

It is the issue that is at the heart of the current industrial dispute, and the problem is utterly obvious – if you cannot hire enough teachers then children will not receive the education they need.

The reasons for this situation are also well-established – they are high workloads and real-terms cuts to pay which mean staff are literally doing more for less. 

It is completely unsustainable and addressing this crisis has to be tackled before anything else is possible. Teaching has to become a more attractive profession. It is as simple as that.

Accountability reform
Which brings us on to another prerequisite – accountability reform. 

In our education system, the tail continues to wag the dog. Inspections and performance tables are all-consuming; they make and break careers; they destroy reputations - of individuals and institutions. 

Schools and colleges are in a virtually perpetual state of preparing for the next set of performance metrics and impending visit by Ofsted. The accountability system drives workload, anxiety, and contributes to the exodus from the profession. 

Of course, schools and colleges must be accountable to the public. They are incredibly important public services. But the accountability system as it currently stands is disproportionate, and counterproductive. This must change to make the system less punitive and more supportive.

To these three prerequisites – funding, teacher supply, accountability – a fourth could also be added in terms of the infrastructure of local services that have been eroded, overwhelmed, or both, over the past decade leaving schools and colleges to pick up the pieces. 

End the silos
Children’s mental health services, social care, educational psychology, attendance support, and more besides, are all under immense pressure, with a resulting impact on young people and their teachers. We’ll be talking more about this at our Annual Conference on March 10 and 11.

It was encouraging to hear Sir Keir Starmer talk in his speech about how to bring our country together, change how government operates, and “end the silos”.

Local services and educational institutions are interconnected in the network of support they provide for young people – and all these services need the capacity and resources to operate effectively. 

Much of the above is dependent on money – not all by any means – but nonetheless, when all is said and done, there’s some big decisions for Labour on spending, and how to raise the revenue for spending. 

They’ve previously set out a policy proposal to do this in education by taxing private schools and using the money in the state sector. 

But whether that policy would succeed in that objective or simply displace large numbers of private pupils into the state system with consequent costs to the state is debatable. Certainly, it is unlikely that it would generate anything like the revenue needed for the investment needed by the education system. 

So: funding, teacher supply, accountability, and re-creating the joined-up services that will enable children and young people to get the education and wider support they need. These, I’d suggest, are the essential building blocks for Labour, or indeed any future administration.

And, therefore, money – as ever – will be the bullet that Labour will have to bite.

Geoff Barton is ASCL General Secretary.

Posted: 24/02/2023 09:27:29