Where is the Labour Party’s education policy heading?

By Jean Roberts

Standing with other members to cheer Jeremy Corbyn at last year’s Party conference seems like many years ago. I was certainly filled with foreboding. The animosity and manoeuvrings against Corbyn were clear during the sessions and from some speeches. Though conference won the day and we agreed some excellent policies, in my view, the stance on Brexit particularly was going to lead to no return to power for the Party. Nevertheless, for the majority of delegates, the 2019 Labour Party Conference was one full of hope. Corbyn had set the scene for victory at the general election which was clearly going to be called after the prorogation of Parliament was deemed unlawful.

On education, an excellent policy was adopted regarding academies. I was very pleased about the strong commitment to bring academies and free schools back under local democratic control and for no more academies to be created. Unfortunately, the vote to abolish private schools did overshadow this in the press coverage, something that would be far more difficult to achieve and could detract from first getting rid of privatisation in our ‘state’ schools. Angela Rayner, in laying out the details of a National Education Service, also set out plans to scrap England’s education watchdog Ofsted, calling it unfit for purpose. It would be replaced with an inspection system which would be local, supportive, encouraging change where necessary and involving the profession. All schools would have regular “health checks” run by local councils and then, if concerns were raised, more in-depth visits from full-time, trained inspectors.

I’m no supporter of Keir Starmer, but at least he appointed Rebecca Long-Bailey as Shadow Education Secretary and she was clearly aiming to continue to fight for the socialist policies agreed at the conference. But she was also clearly a thorn in his side as a supporter of Corbyn and others on the left of the Party. So it was no surprise that Long-Bailey was sacked at the first opportunity and Kate Green was appointed as Shadow Education Secretary instead. She is a firm supporter of Starmer and his ilk.

What is of great concern now is that when Green or Starmer talk about education (or most other subjects) there is no mention of the unions and the battles they have fought and won, forcing Johnson and his government to change course during the Covid-19 pandemic. For example, Green said in July, “All children must be safely back in school by September… Teachers, school leaders, staff, and parents have achieved a huge amount throughout this crisis, and now they desperately need the support of the government.” No dispute there, but where is the mention of the excellent work to ensure conditions were safe for children and staff fought for by the National Education Union (NEU) and the other unions, including headteacher unions? No mention that it was the NEU who, immediately lockdown was announced, ensured that schools could open for key workers’ children and those who were vulnerable.

In England, some of our academy chains and free schools fell over themselves to be among the minority of schools that opened for all three year groups in Johnson’s failed attempt to dictate that primary and nursery schools open to these groups on June 1st.  Even then, many parents did not comply due to safety concerns, particularly the non-readiness of a proven reliable track and trace system. A handful of the worst academies even refused to allow the union to be involved in drawing up risk assessments, contrary to Health and Safety Executive policy and legislation, and thereby risked lives. It was the education unions, led by the NEU, who organised a unified, determined and successful campaign, gaining support from parents, which meant Johnson had to do a U-turn on opening schools. This was done by building professional unity through joint statements and Health and Safety checklists. It is important more permanent links are made, including working towards further amalgamations into one large and powerful education union.

 

Renationalisation of key sectors of our economy must be a priority in any viable recovery plan. After ensuring that the profiteering privateers are removed from our NHS, and all PFI hospitals nationalised without compensation, where better to start than education?

Planning for the future means stopping any more local authority schools being privatised. In this crisis, local councils have more than proved their worth. Given enough money, they can do an excellent job. Further, we must call for the staff and parents of all academies and free schools to have the right to return their schools to local authority control and support them in campaigning for this. Privatisation has led to worsening conditions for staff and pupils, particularly those with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities. It has meant a lack of funding for vital educational needs, yet massive payments to chief executives and other senior board members, along with an almost weekly exposé of corruption and asset stripping from academy schools.

There is no place for OFSTED in our schools in 2020. For years, our broken accountability system has made life harder, for educators, for children and for the system as a whole, contributing nothing to educational improvement. During this crisis, OFSTED has been exposed as worse than useless. As and when the majority of students return to their schools and colleges, they need time to rebuild and recover, not the pressure of inspections hanging over them. If necessary, schools should refuse to comply with inspection. This should be Green’s clear message from the Labour Party.

One of the key planks of Starmer’s leadership campaign was a pledge to retain our manifesto’s promise to abolish all tuition fees. This proposal to essentially guarantee free education for all was one of the defining features of the National Education Service, which despite being initially proposed during Corbyn’s first leadership campaign, was never fully developed. This relative lack of detail on the National Education Service is an opportunity to flesh out the concept for all those who are interested in education on the left – party members, trade unionists and the many grassroots activists galvanised first by the school cuts campaign of the last few years, and more recently, the response to Covid-19. After many years of neo-liberal cuts, the National Education Service represents a real opportunity around which educators and educationalists can unite.

Starmer and his team need to show Labour Party members that they have not abandoned the socialist principles of the Party. For my part I joined to see a radical social change in government policy, in no small part in education as my principle area of work. The opportunity for real change is within our grasp as the population comes out of lockdown. There is still a way to go, but we cannot as a country survive till the next election. People need, through their unions and pressure groups, to bring this government down. But we need to ensure that a government willing to ensure a future for the many and not the few is there to take over.

Jean Roberts is a retired NEU member and member of Brent Central Labour Party