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16 February 2015updated 17 Jan 2024 7:27am

Ed on ed: what would a Miliband government do for education?

The time seems to be right for the Labour leader to lay the foundations of a new, more confident, education policy for his party.

By Melissa Benn

In the end, perhaps, it passed with more of a whimper than a bang. Or rather, the bang was elsewhere – with the question of Tory tax evasion, especially as Ed Miliband chose to use the closing passages of his schools speech late last week to follow up on the Fink question. (Fair enough – more tax equals more public spending.) As for the substance of the Labour leader’s first major statement on schools in a long time, the press focused on class sizes and later, on the comparative spending promises of the big parties. (The person to trust on this is Henry Stewart of the Local Schools Network, here and here.)

But Ed on ed is worth a closer look for other reasons, in particular the subtly changing Labour narrative on schools, an area the new Labour leadership has had real difficulty with during the Gove years. Here, buried beneath the required talk of aspiration and skills for a global economy, were some welcome messages about what a Miliband government might actually do.

Ed has always been very proud, and vocally so, of his comprehensive education and, if memory serves me right, this was one of several speeches he has chosen to give at his old school, Haverstock. (It amused me the way that a couple of reporters gingerly described it as “Haverstock comprehensive” – I mean, can you imagine them writing of Cameron that he gave a speech from “Eton private school?”).

For all Ed’s personal commitment, Labour still can’t claim comprehensive education for itself, as it does the NHS, when, for all their problems, both public services should be natural territory for the party of One Nation. Andy Burnham has said that his biggest regret as shadow education secretary during the early manic Gove period, was not to champion comprehensive education.

But things have shifted in interesting ways over the last four years. Not least, the right of the Tory party has claimed non-selective excellence for its own. Key figures like Jonathan Simons of Policy Exchange or Sam Freedman, former adviser to Gove, may welcome “diverse providers” or even full-blown privatisation, but they passionately believe that far from advancing social mobility, academic selection merely entrenches existing advantage. Gove, Freedman has claimed, “normalised comprehensive education for the Tory party”.

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All this helps Ed to lay the foundations of a new, more confident, Labour education policy. So, too, does the visible failure of the Gove bus – I rather like the current NUT hash tag on this theme, #thewheelscomeoff and the destructive stand-off between the teaching profession and Gove that finally did for the erudite, excitable ex-minister.

This leaves some sensible mainstream themes for Labour to pick up and run with, including the need for qualified teachers (duh!), continued professional development, planning for need in terms of new school provision, proper careers advice, and keeping class sizes at 30.  

At the same time, there is a shift away from the axioms of the New Labour years. Yes, Miliband namechecks the original city academies but he is unequivocally critical of the expensive and wasteful academy conversion and free school programmes of the Gove years.

He goes even further by saying that the answer does not lie in structural reform but in world class teaching, a broad and balanced curriculum, and local not central oversight. All the elements, in fact, of a good local school – if not a terribly exciting speech. He is also very good on the ways that the hastily imposed eBacc has led to the tragic abandonment by many schools of arts options when all the evidence shows that a good arts education boosts academic attainment.

No mention, either, of the role of local authorities in education, another long standing negative touchstone for Labour, but Miliband is robust about the need for local oversight and collaboration. Enter the Blunkett plan for a new Director of School standards, a kind of supra local authority position.

It was a shame he couldn’t mention the urgent issue of teacher workload nor tackle the question of fair admissions, a growing problem, as more and more schools with their renowned “freedoms” are able to pick and choose the pupils to teach. And, of course, no word on the disgracefully divisive 11-plus in 15 selective authorities, with its catastrophic implications for the education of poorer children in those areas.

Melissa Benn is co-author of a new e-book “School Myths: And The Evidence That Blows Them Apart”, available now on Kindle

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