A little over a month ago, Lucy Powell MP became Labour’s fifth shadow education secretary since the 2010 election. Of her four predecessors, only Ed Balls, who skewered Gove over the botched cancellation of the BSF, acquired any glory from time spent in that role. Messrs. Burnham, Twigg and Hunt, despite all starting in interesting ways, all ended up with little to say other than some subset of the following points, which I hope Lucy Powell will avoid:
Reform of Vocational Education
Labour politicians love talking about vocational education. A few soundbites about “parity of esteem” and they think they have a policy. Yet the record of government-led reform in this area has, for decades, been one disaster after another, all dissolving into dumbed-down options or bureaucratic nightmares that lack “esteem” only because they don’t deserve it. It’s not that nothing can be done to help vocational education, but complex plans are not needed. All that’s needed to improve vocational education is decent funding for FE colleges. That’s it.
Teaching Soft Skills and Character
Like vocational education, this is a policy based on a middle class person’s idea of what working class kids need and is also a dead end the Tories have driven into. It’s not that teachers and schools never make a positive contribution to a young person’s character; it’s that this is not something governments can ever regulate, legislate, fund or promote in a meaningful way. They can only encourage an array of gimmicks, gestures and distractions. Schools are there to make kids smarter, and keep them behaving sensibly enough to make it possible to do that. Responsibility for instilling the other virtues is shared far more widely. There is no weapon in a school’s armoury that can ensure a young person is kind and good. Attempts to require this will only lead to teachers thinking they are there to be therapists, preachers and thought police.
Since at least as far back as Edison’s dream of replacing the textbook with the film reel, there have been those who think technology is about to transform education. A century later, in which technology has only ever allowed incremental improvements, the same mix of dreamers and con-men are waiting for gullible politicians to stuff their wallets with public money under the delusion that the ed-tech miracle is about to happen or that this will be the generation of school children who mainly go on to do “jobs that haven’t been invented yet”. Don’t listen to the technological gurus begging for public money. They are trying to persuade politicians to buy their products because they know they cannot persuade teachers.
Dismissing Debate Over Pedagogy
Teachers are frequently told how to teach by managers, consultants and colleagues. The debate over methods of pedagogy, between progressives and traditionalists, is long-standing. Within the system, only those who are fully supportive of progressive education, or are unaware of the alternatives, claim there isn’t a debate. Others live the debate every day of their working life, knowing that at any moment their view of the aims, content and methods of teaching could be challenged on ideological grounds. Politicians don’t have to take sides – they could argue for teacher autonomy- but attempts to dismiss the debate as out of date simply indicate one is oblivious to classroom realities.
Taking the Politics Out of Education
This is the worst suggestion of the lot. By all means give autonomy to teachers and school leaders where they know what to do with it, but don’t ever hand control of policy to the unelected. No matter how much the vested interests, or so-called “experts”, claim otherwise, it is not the politicians that have made education political. Education is political because a good education gives one access to power and wealth and because the distribution of power and wealth is about as political as it gets. The only reason anybody asks for power to be taken from politicians and given to “experts” is the hope that those experts will pursue an ideological agenda that nobody would ever vote for if they saw it debated in public or in the media. Few clichés are more toxic than the claim that, by debating their ideas in public, politicians have made education “a political football”.