At a lecture at LSE last week: ’What do the results of the British general election mean for the left?’ Professor John Curtice argued that one of Labour’s main problems was their failure to come up with a clear message about what the party stood for. Whilst on the subject of leadership, Polly Toynbee pointed out that a Labour leader must be able to stand for and, in some respects, unite the coalition of voices that exist within the party.
Nowhere was the lack of clear message and sense of disunity more apparent to me than in the party’s education policy. Back in 2013 at the first Labour Teachers Teach Meet I was bright-eyed with hope about Labour’s direction in education. Next came the #blogsync to Tristram Hunt, another Labour Teach Meet, a torrent of Twitter contributions. Naively I waited for this to impact on policy. When the “policy” started appearing it felt like the moment you’ve taken in the books for marking – you excitedly open the exercise book of that attentive pupil in the first row, only to find that they’ve just written down the title and a cartoon of someone’s head getting blown off, captioned ‘LOL’. In Labour’s case the cartoon head was Gove’s – that a number of teachers seemed not to like him seemed to be all they’d picked up from the last two years of listening.
As such, education policy increasingly felt like a post-it with the words ‘Reverse, Reverse’ scribbled on it. For me, the final nail in the coffin was the announcement, on the eve before election day, that Tristram Hunt wanted to bring back levels. Just hours away from the election and the best they could do was a return to an assessment system which is nothing more than meaningless bureaucracy. As I pushed my Labour vote into the ballot box the next morning, I didn’t feel so bright-eyed anymore.
With the defeat of the election last week, I found myself increasingly angry about the emptiness of Labour’s education policy.
I’ve had enough of the reductive rhetoric from the last few years: free schools: bad; unqualified teachers: wrong; Gove: evil; academic subjects; elitist. It’s time the party opened up a more sophisticated, complex and difficult conversation about these issues. Why is it that there are Labour members working in free schools, or arguing for knowledge led curriculum or challenging teacher training programmes? Instead of shutting down these voices as ‘unrepresentative’ or not ‘true’ Labour, we should be asking the difficult questions about the constraints of the comprehensive system; the quality of teacher education and most importantly the academic purpose of schools.
This is particularly relevant when it comes to curriculum and assessment – in the last few years there has been a surge of passionate debate over what we should be teaching and the means in which we test this both within school and as part of external examinations. As a result, teachers and schools have worked hard to develop new curriculum and assessment models, many of which demonstrate great leaps forward in our understanding of teaching and learning. There’s also been a broad wave of agreement in terms of the need to develop curriculum which expects more of our pupils, and to design assessment which has meaningful impact on pupil outcomes. Yet Labour have backed away from this all, seemingly fearful to go near anything that the Conservatives put into motion. However, as Professor Michael Young et al. argue so effectively in ‘Knowledge and the Future School’ this doesn’t have to be about embracing the future as seen by the Conservative education department, but about the left negotiating a new future where we determine the powerful knowledge that should be the focus of our curriculum. If we run from this discussion we lose our voice in shaping the central part of our education system – what we believe we should teach the children in our care.
It is time for Labour to move beyond reactionary rhetoric and instead engage with the difficult questions, the tough debates and the coalition of voices. If we do this, we’ll determine what education on the left means today. What a clear message that would send.