Party conferences are as good an opportunity as any to reflect on policy. On education, it is probably fair to say that Labour have been unable to take advantage of the unpopularity of Michael Gove and seize the upper hand. With more than a year and a half to go until the next general election it would, as Labour MPs are fond of pointing out, be unrealistic for Labour to have fully developed policies in all areas. However, their policy pronouncements on education so far reveal problems that will not be solved simply by the arrival of more concrete proposals. If Labour is to offer a serious, coherent and principled alternative to the education policy of the coalition government then it will need to abandon the reluctance and caution that have underpinned its approach so far.
Let’s first consider the caution. Gove’s approach to school choice and diversity has presented Labour with something of a dilemma. The huge expansion of the academies programme – driven largely by the introduction of converter academies – in many ways represents a continuation of the education agenda pursued by the last Labour government. Indeed, Andrew Adonis, the central figure in the Labour government’s education team, has argued that free schools are the logical next-step in the academy revolution. However, increased diversity and choice in the school system was never universally supported within the party, as demonstrated by the back-bench rebellion which forced the removal of ‘Trust schools’ from the final version of the Education and Inspections Act 2006. Labour is now faced with a controversial transformation of the education system which it undoubtedly laid the groundwork for but which is also deeply unpopular with large sections of the party.
Unable to successfully navigate a clear and principled path from its approach in government to its position in opposition the party has instead submerged itself in the details. Occasional mutterings about how Gove has corrupted the noble purpose of the original academies are rarely developed. Instead the common criticism is one of process. It is wrong, we are told, that academies are only accountable to the Secretary of State. We are also told that if freedoms afforded to them, such as freedom over the curriculum, raise standards then they should be available to all schools. Note how the core question – whether such freedoms do raise standards – is ignored so that the charge of inconsistency can be made more easily. The pinnacle of this cautious, process-based critique is Labour’s response to free schools. On the surface Labour opposes free schools. They would replace them with parent-led academies which would have to be supported by the local community and established in areas where there is a need for school places. In other words, Labour is not opposed to free schools: it just wants to ensure that they are established in the right areas.
If this cautiousness is a result of what Labour did whilst in government, the reluctance which also characterises its approach is a result of what it did not do. Aside from the focus on literacy and numeracy at primary level the last Labour government rarely engaged with the question of exactly what type of education schools should be providing. Raising standards was a key mantra without there being much focus on what those standards should be. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Labour has been put on the back foot by an education secretary who has a very clear idea of what children should be taught, how this should be assessed and which subjects matter more than others. By contrast, Labour has seemed reluctant to engage in this debate at all. Stephen Twigg’s response to the proposed changes to the national curriculum, for example, made no mention of what Labour thought should be included. Instead he criticised Gove for not getting ‘his proposals right the first time around’ (suggesting that they were right now) and again highlighted that the proposed curriculum would not apply to all schools. One area in which Labour has sought to distinguish itself from the government in terms of what should be taught is vocational education. Both Twigg and Ed Miliband have spoken about the ‘forgotten 50 per cent’ who study vocational subjects and do not go to university. But again there is a reluctance to go beyond saying that there is a need for high-quality technical qualifications by giving some idea of how to make that happen.
These problems are not insurmountable for Labour. Many of its objections to free schools and the freedoms granted to academies are perfectly valid. What is missing so far is any attempt to go beyond the details and present a distinct theoretical position on school choice and diversity. This is probably a political calculation; as in many policy areas, Labour has concluded that it can damage the government without having to construct a coherent alternative. Confronted by the explicitly ideological vision of education being advocated by Gove this caution is increasingly looking like a mistake. Now is the time for Labour to articulate exactly what role choice and diversity should play in our education system. It is also time for it to engage in the debate about what education should be for. Proposed changes to the national curriculum and the exam system are hugely significant: it is no longer good enough for Labour to stand on the side and mock the decision-making process of the government without offering any alternative.