Labour manifesto promises for education are worth fighting for, writes Alex Snowdon
The section of Labour’s general election manifesto devoted to education has an approach to schools that represents a potentially historic change for children and young people, for teachers and for our schools. It is enormously hopeful and practical, grounded in an understanding of the damage done to schools over the last three decades - by Tory and Labour governments alike - and a grasp of what needs to change.
Schools policy is framed as part of a commitment to lifelong learning, and free access to diverse learning opportunities, in the form of a national education service. It is refreshing to see Labour explicitly articulate a rounded, humane vision of education: ‘education isn’t just vital to our economy - it lets people develop their talents, overcome injustices and inequalities, and helps us understand each other and form social bonds’.
School funding is the single biggest issue facing schools. The Tories are desperately trying, under Boris Johnson, to pose as champions of increased funding, but it is the Tories who made cuts in the first place. Their proposed increases do not go far enough and are utterly inadequate in areas like early years, SEND (special educational needs and disabilities) and further education.
Labour is proposing serious increases. The commitment to early years is a bold and very welcome investment, with a pledge to recruit nearly 150,000 new staff in the sector (with a national pay scale). It guarantees, too, securing the future of the nursery schools that are currently at risk due to Tory neglect.
The commitment to increase funding of schools includes the commitment to limit all primary class sizes to 30 and to provide free school meals for all primary-age children. There is also a clear commitment to reducing teacher workload pressures. This includes a pledge to fund more non-contact time for teachers. There is an obvious seriousness about improving recruitment and retention of teachers.
The manifesto condemns the way that schools ‘are being subjected to intensified testing, inspection, league tables and competition’. All of these things were eulogised by Labour during the Blair and Brown eras. The sea change in thinking is articulated in a number of policies, including the abolition of Ofsted and the scrapping of SATs and baseline testing. There is a very welcome focus on ensuring all children get a broad curriculum and range of opportunities throughout their schooling. The Arts Pupil Premium, with its emphasis on creative and cultural education, is a shrewd and imaginative example.
The pledge to move towards all schools being under local authority control - overcoming the fragmentation, competition and waste in schools - is commendably ambitious and sane. It is one of the key elements providing a guiding vision to Labour’s education policies. The promise to establish a national supply teaching agency is an innovative example of this coordinated and collaborative approach. The current patchwork of private supply agencies is a rip-off that does nothing for schools while holding down supply teachers’ pay.
The manifesto is also the first step in a longer-term process of eradicating the injustice of private education. The immediate measures are modest - closing tax loopholes for private schools and establishing a commission to advise on integrating private schools into the state sector - but point in a more egalitarian direction.
The urgent priorities for teachers and schools - such as more funding, scrapping SATs and Ofsted, investment in SEND - are central to what is being championed by Labour. The headline promises, underpinned by a different vision of schooling and fleshed out by some very welcome policy details, make Labour’s manifesto something worth campaigning for. We have three weeks to make this more than merely a set of good ideas for schools. It can become a guide to charting a better direction in education.
Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.
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