What makes effective opposition?

Tom Welch, Research Consultant SSAT, writes…

There is no single definition of the job of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition that all commentators and interested parties agree on. Effective opposition could be seen as gaining policy concession through holding the government of the day to account.

Some would argue that the main aim must be to pave the way for ousting that government at the next General Election.

Presumably, any model of effective opposition will contain elements of both of these. For this reason, it can be argued that the outgoing shadow front bench failed in its role as Official Opposition on both counts.

it can be argued that the outgoing shadow front bench failed in its role as Official Opposition

In the case of education, despite strong rhetoric – particularly with regards to accountability structures; devolution of powers to profession-led bodies; a focus on early years’ provision and the importance of a gold-standard vocational route – there were few concessions won and, of course, they lost the election.

In terms of concessions, it could even be argued that the most effective “opposition” to government education policy came from within the government itself – the Liberal Democrats.

The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the Labour Party would have been unthinkable even at the beginning of this year.

Many have already suggested that, despite the media hype around a groundswell of support for thinking-the-unthinkable and radical politics in general, Corbyn is destined to fail in his brief in terms of winning the General Election in 2020 (even if he remains leader until then).

Whether true or not, it is unlikely that we will see a coherent set of education policies, after such a wholesale change of Shadow Cabinet, until well into the current parliament.

it is unlikely that we will see a coherent set of education policies . . . until well into the current parliament

The Institute for Government suggests it can often take as long as three years for a new opposition to offer anything other than noises towards policy.

Lucy Powell – handed the shadow education brief on Sunday, replacing Tristrum Hunt – has been an MP since a by-election in November 2012. She has a very similar voting record to Tristram Hunt; a centrist through-and-through.

What would we like to see from her as she assembles the Opposition’s education platform over the course of this Parliament?

In Building on Consensus, published before the General Election in May 2015, SSAT recommended that future ministers should “design policies that allow school leaders to make their own professional decisions informed by a range of evidence, including local context”.

In broad terms, we would like to see debates between politicians and professionals with the resulting policies flexible enough to be adapted to local challenges. We would suggest:

  1. Invite the profession in. Firstly, we would like to see the new shadow minister forging and extending links with people working in the field at all levels. It would be refreshing to see an opposition setting a profession-led agenda as opposed to reacting to that espoused by the government of the day. Professional insiders would not only advise on policy that is well received and that addresses the day-to-day challenges of the classroom, but also on any potential problems of implementation including the pace and volume of change
  2. Ensure that new and opposing ideas get proper air time and debate. There can have been few better opportunities to broaden the debate around education policy than now. Many proclaim that Corbyn will preside over the first opposition who are ideologically opposed, in many ways, to the government of the day since the early 1980s. So long as the profession’s voice is heard regarding a necessary period of calm and stability (see above), the broadening of debate, and a return to first principles, should be embraced
  3. Ensure that the consultation and debate during the policy drafting process goes deep and leads to policy that unites rather than divides. Policy should not be drafted at the whim of an individual, no matter how committed they are to their brief, or pure ideology. We need to see an era of effective opposition based on a strong cabinet feeding into a coherent and collective set of policies

If properly handled, what would emerge from these three could be a vision for education with moral purpose, students and teachers at its heart.

A vision that could be carried forward by successive shadow ministers or governments and, ultimately, be passed to, and iteratively redefined by, a profession-led body newly tasked with overseeing education.

A system managed by schools, for schools.

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