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Would Labour’s education policies work?

In what’s been another turbulent and unprecedented week in British politics, the start of the week saw Angela Rayner take to the stage at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton – so what did the shadow education secretary say, and would this work in practice?

The most headline-grabbing policy was to ‘abolish’ Ofsted. This is something that we have been aware of for some time, since Mike Kane, shadow schools minister, spoke to the Leading Edge Steering Group a year ago. At that time, he described the inspectorate as ‘not fit for purpose’ and that a Labour government would instead develop an online portal, accessible to all, which would publish a range of school data “including progress, attainment, pastoral care, off role, exclusions”.

At the time, I pointed out that all of this information is currently in the public domain, and also warned that an accountability system overly focused on data would be unwelcome; it would see a return to the damaging data-led inspections of the last decade. The new 2019 framework, although not perfect, attempts to look at the lived reality of a school, the quality of education, rather than historical data.

A year on, Labour’s policy has developed somewhat. Rayner announced that Ofsted would be ‘abolished’, and replaced with a two-tier system of LA-led ‘health checks’, and more detailed inspections led by trained inspectors when there were causes of concern. This would be backed up by a national peer-review programme, based on the London Challenge.

I can see the logic in some of these suggestions – however there are major flaws. When roughly half of English schools are maintained by local authorities (a figure that could well grow again under Labour), it would be a massive conflict of interest for providers to inspect themselves. Of course, LAs, like MATs, carry out robust internal monitoring and evaluation; but parents and communities need an impartial and independent inspectorate.

Rayner surprisingly didn’t mention academies in her speech – but a Labour government would need to be clear about the different role of players within the system: who is the commissioner, who is responsible for school improvement, and who are schools accountable to? No organisation, or local authority, can fulfil all three functions.

Ofsted are painfully aware that they have historically created increased pressures in schools. They have done much admirable work to try to minimise this. Likewise, by focusing on the substance of education, the inspectorate is empowering school leaders to focus on the curriculum itself; not a narrow set of outcomes. Ofsted is by no means perfect, but scrapping it without a clear alternative would be impractical.

I know many respected heads favour a model of peer review, and again I think the model is a great one for school improvement – including our own robust peer review programme. However, in an autonomous school system we should trust headteachers and CEOs to broker the right support for their schools and academies, rather than suggesting a one-size-fits-all approach to school improvement.

Other announcements included a policy, put forward through a members’ motion, to integrate private schools into the state system. Actually, Rayner didn’t say that, but said Labour would ‘investigate’ the idea, while reiterating existing Labour policy to remove tax breaks. The private schools lobby has naturally been vocal about this, arguing that private education providers do a lot to promote social justice across England, by redistributing middle-class fees into bursaries and scholarships for the most disadvantaged. Regardless, whether any future government could actually remove the public’s right to privately educate their children, and seize the assets from charitable trusts, remains to be seen.

Other policies such as a no-opt out for SRE in schools, a cap on school uniforms, and new SureStartPlus are all very welcome – and would do much to ensure the welfare of young people and their families; and, in time, reverse many of the impacts of a decade of austerity.

Labour’s educational policies are beginning to take shape, and there are some genuinely solid ideas there; but, as we head to an inevitable general election, we need to know more about what this would look like in practice, so we can see whether it would work in reality.

We await the education secretary’s speech this weekend to see how the Tories may build on their educational announcements earlier this month; read SSAT’s and Wrigleys Solicitors take on the current announcements.

Tom does regular policy updates for groups of headteachers, principals, CEOs, governors and senior leaders. This talk is tailored to your event or meeting, and covers central policy, horizon scanning, curriculum, assessment, qualification, accountability and other leadership considerations. To check Tom’s availability and book, please email rmteam@ssatuk.co.uk.

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