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15 August 2014

Is the Labour party finally beginning to engage on education?

After years of hardly trying to counter the coalition’s regressive education reforms, Labour finally seems to have begun to make a move.

By Dan Holden

At the start of this week Tristram Hunt gave a speech saying that the next Labour government would stop the reforms to A-levels introduced under Michael Gove and that the Conservatives were “turning the clock back on social mobility” with their policies. This intervention marks the first time that Labour has begun to counter the government’s reforms on a more substantive and ideological level since the start of the coalition.

The government’s reforms which scrapped AS-levels were often unpopular because, according University admissions staff, they unfairly affected students at comprehensive schools. Comprehensive students made the fastest progress between GCSE and AS-level, therefore improving their prospects when applying to University. In essence, the reforms had an adverse effect upon access to higher education by penalising comprehensive students.

It’s been a long period of quiet from Labour on education, both from Stephen Twigg and Tristram Hunt, but now that Michael Gove has been replaced with Nicky Morgan, it seems that tide is beginning to turn. Previously, Hunt has attacked the government on teaching standards and qualifications, something which he reiterated on Monday. Hunt’s attack on the impact of reforms upon social mobility however represents something more substantial; he is pinning his colours to the mast and saying that social mobility will the core of One Nation Labour’s educational ideology.

Of all the different policy fields covered by the One Nation banner, education has been the slowest to evolve and to form a coherent narrative. Where is the equivalent of Andy Burnham’s “whole-person care”? Maybe the idea of “whole-person education” or even “whole-life education” could be the election slogan for a set of education policies that promote the joint ideas of social mobility and access to education. Whatever they decide on, it is clear that education policy has not been a priority for the party.

Instead of creating a comprehensive alternative to the coalition’s dogma of educational reform, Labour has previously focused mostly on technical points and in so doing created a consensus in Westminster around education by virtue of barely even engaging with the debate. By now taking on the reforms on an ideological level, Labour is starting to flesh out its philosophical backbone on education.

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This week’s speech of course only represented the beginnings of something happening with Labour’s education policy; it was not by any means a major policy overhaul. There is still lots of work to be done and questions to be answered; what are they going to do with vocational education? And how will they make it stick? How does education fit into the overall party message? What we saw this week was indication of what will underpin Labour’s education policy for next year.

In an interview today for Buzzfeed, Tristram Hunt specifically said that, “the party has always viewed education as a vehicle for social mobility”. The Labour party was the party that introduced the Open University, an institution specifically designed to widen access to education, to give the opportunity of social mobility to more people. It was also the party that introduced comprehensive education, which aimed to helped those left behind by the educational elitism. If Tristram Hunt is serious in his belief of social mobility being created through education, he will need to put his money where his mouth is and live up to the legacy of the party with something bigger and bolder than keeping AS-levels. Hopefully this week’s speech has signalled the start of this change in education policy and is not just a one-off.