Parents not Chains under future Labour?

There was quite a contrast between Ed Davey and Tristram Hunt on the BBC’s  Andrew Marr show this morning, and it went beyond just sartorial elegance. Ed Davey turned up in a jacket and tie to match the dress code of the show’s presenter whereas Mr Hunt was fashionably open-necked, with hair that was either an expert coiffure or just dishevelled, depending on your point of view.

Their mastery of the questioning also revealed a Minister who has been in post for a year and a shadow spokesperson with less than a week in the job. Tristram Hunt was tempted by Mr Marr into the higher education debate, despite it presumably not being within his brief. It was difficult to square his enthusiasm for polytechnics with his reluctance to expand higher education provision. How could polytechnics be created by Labour? One way would be to re-brand some existing universities, if they would agree. Another would be to re-grade some colleges of further education as polys. But, that would mean either depriving existing universities of places or increasing the number of degree places available, something Mr Hunt didn’t appear to think a good idea. Clearly, it is work in progress somewhere in the Labour team.

On schools, I welcome his attention to the need for qualified teachers, although he wasn’t pressed on what this might mean, except in the area of national pay where his answer didn’t reveal anything about Labour policy, just that most schools still follow the national norms: would Labour make them do so? Parent led free schools – why don’t we just call them academies and have done with the confusion – seems like a bit of a –U- turn in more ways than one. Brown Labour under Ed Balls favoured sponsored academies, and the formation of chains, so separate schools, but only where there is a need, suggests more primary schools but few secondary schools would be approved under Labour. So how would Mr Hunt get more of the UTC or Studio schools he extolled when talking about the JCB Academy, a school that is supported and named after the company run by the Tory peer. Such schools are unlikely to be founded by parents and, anyway, for the next few years we won’t need many new secondary schools, even if we need more vocational courses. Where local authorities fit into the picture, if indeed they do under Labour, wasn’t mentioned at all.

Primary education didn’t rate a mention either which was a shame given the importance of the sector. Overall, there didn’t seem much of a leftward drift, more a ‘don’t frighten the horses’ approach. The content of the recent OECD Report was batted away, although the subsequent discussion did seem to reveal that 16-18 education might feature in Labour’s thinking. Will they return the FE sector to the education department, or at least full responsibility for 16-19 education and training, now that the participation age has been raised? Both Labour and the Tories seem confused about where this sector of education policy should sit in government, and both might do well to study the Lib Dems detailed policy paper ‘Learning for Life’ that formed the basis for the conference motion passed in September 2013 at Glasgow.

Overall, the parent run academy approach isn’t startlingly new since Labour re-invented the academy principle of Westminster-funded schools despite having abolished the former Tory created Grant Maintained Schools after the 1997 election. What is new is who will be allowed to run them. Labour at Westminster seems happy to fund ‘private schools on the rates’. Whether it will appeal to the wider Party only time will tell.

Finally, as I have mentioned in a previous blog, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Report entitled ‘Half our Future’ that dealt with those pupils then largely being educated in secondary modern schools. As a historian Mr Hunt might have gained some kudos for recognising the importance of that report as well as the failure of the Atlee Government to properly implement both the technical schools and ‘county colleges’ of the 1944 Education Act.


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