In case you missed Tristram Hunt’s speech to Labour Party Conference yesterday, here’s a brief recap of the main points (and indeed much of the substance of what was a fairly brief speech). As is now a contractual requirement for Labour’s resident historian, Hunt opened with a bit of history, reminding the party of its proud historical association with the workers’ education movements that originated in civic Manchester and the industrial north. The speech also linked to wider Labour themes, notably standing up for ordinary workers, epitomised in the pledge to support the ‘hidden army’ of support staff in our schools by re-establishing a negotiating body to ensure fair pay for these low paid and lowlier status education workers.
The main substance was based around three main themes that will define Labour’s manifesto pledges on education as it goes into the next election.
First, touching on the politics of childcare, Hunt pledged to ‘end the Tory attack on Sure Start’ – though without specifying how this will be achieved, as he has previously ruled out re-imposing the ring-fence on early years funding removed by the Coalition Government. More specifically, he reiterated Labour’s pledge to offer more help for parents struggling with the cost of living by increasing childcare for working parents from 15 hours to 25 hours. Any help with the crippling costs of childcare will be welcomed by parents, but to be clear, this is not an educational policy – it could just as well have been unveiled by the Shadow Minister for Work and Pensions. It only qualifies as an educational policy if Labour can show how this extra investment will enable more qualified staff – including specialist early years teachers – in all settings and guarantee more focused and developmentally rich learning environments (not the dire prospect of little children sitting at desks, but enriched forms of play-based learning). Otherwise this is just about childcare – not at all unimportant, but more about keeping children safe and hopefully happy at a subsidised cost whilst their parents are at work.
The second theme was the now familiar promise to enhance the quality of teaching – the most important school-level factor for improving children’s attainment and future outcomes. Labour’s promise is to provide “a world class teacher in every classroom” – which would be a remarkable achievement if it could be achieved. Conference delegates were given little detail about how significant progress would be made towards this goal, beyond extra efforts to ensure high quality training and professional development for serving teachers, and a vague pledge to ‘roll out’ the London Challenge approach across the country, enabling schools to work better together rather than battling against each other in crude competition. Sticking the boot into Nicky Morgan (described as “continuity Gove”, lest anyone forget the lingering influence of the recently departed Education Secretary), he draw attention to the Tory’s “shameful record” on rising class sizes, unqualified teachers and Morgan’s refusal to rule out for-profit businesses benefiting from public funding in education.
Nothing directly was said on the important question of how Labour will bring some coherence to the fragmented and divided English school system, though the policy pledge is to introduce a new ‘Director of School Standards’ in every locality. Depending on the level at which such a Director will operate, this could help provide more localised and knowledgeable leadership than is possible under the Coalition’s regional commissioners, though Labour has yet to spell out how it really sees the role of local authorities working under any new arrangements.
Third, Hunt promised to oversee an education system that works for the “forgotten 50 per cent” of students not heading to university. Describing the failure to invest in and improve technical education as “the Tories’ greatest failure”, he committed Labour to reverse this trend, by ensuring that further education colleges are tailored to local labour market demand and student needs, provide better careers advice and “proper apprenticeships lasting two years” as well as introducing technical degrees so “young people can earn and learn”. Again, little to dislike but very little detail either on how and whether such promises can be achieved in practice.
What is most striking about education at this Labour Conference is the relatively low profile given to education themes, both on the conference platform and in fringe debates. Compared to a whole day devoted to the NHS on Wednesday, there were only 90 odd minutes of conference debate about education, signalling where the party thinks the real political battle grounds will lie at the next election. With only eight minutes to play with, Tristram Hunt did as much as he needed to do to lay out Labour’s stall on education. Sensibly, he side-stepped continuing (low level) grumbles of Labour activists about the proliferation of academies and free schools and the continued existence of faith schools. Unlike previous conferences, these concerns about the direction of education policy do not seem to inflame the conference as they once did. Thus, whereas the Tories are likely to proceed with ‘Plan A’ – towards total Academisation – there is only a minority movement in Labour’s ranks to return to ‘Plan C’ – or a fully comprehensive system. Most of the party appears to accept some version of a ‘Plan B’ – keeping the incredibly diverse mix of schools that currently exists, but with any luck, showing how a more coherent system can yet emerge from the messy reality on the ground.
Louise Bamfield is Associate Director of Education at the RSA