Finding Labour’s Education Mojo

Less than a year before the general election, has the Labour Party developed winning education policies? Tristram Hunt’s latest speech ‘The Choice in Education’ was a bit like a pre-tour band rehearsal. A range of material was tried out, some of it was good, some of it was weak but some of the best stuff was left out.

So, given that both the tour and the album need to go well, here is my personal advice about each of the tracks, starting with the worst:

The Forgotten 50 Percent: This one really needs to be dropped quickly. It assumes that young people who don’t go to university are ‘forgotten’. The chorus of “a bewildering array of options that are difficult to navigate” suggests a lack of understanding of the many good quality and perfectly clear vocational routes on offer and it fails to acknowledge that students on vocational courses progress to university in large numbers. If they don’t always get good jobs, it’s not because of their qualifications but despite them. This track makes the band sound seriously out of touch.

Institutes of Technical Education: Your nostalgia for the technical schools that never were following 1944 is no better than the “grammar school nostalgia” you criticise. Re-branding some FE colleges and not others sounds like a two-nation ‘structural impulse’ of the very kind you criticise. Tell people that you will make sure that all schools and all colleges aim to be excellent.

Race to the Top: Be careful about promising that education will solve our economic problems and create “a high-wage, high-tech, high innovation economy”. At the moment, unemployment and underemployment are more real than an alleged “40 million shortage of high skilled workers”. The fact is “the ever changing, ever more competitive market place” is nothing new and the best way for young people to prepare for it is to have a broad, rounded education.

Human Capital: Do people like being described as economic resources or assets? Why can’t we just talk about educating people…as full and active members of society?

Gold Standard and…

World Class Teaching: The lyrics are fine, these ones just need better titles in plain English.

Generation Citizen: Great sentiment, but drop this one. The next one does the job better.

The Promise of Britain: “Young people who are confident, determined and resilient…bursting with ideas about how they can contribute and make a difference” This is good but you need to say more about what more a new government will actually do to nurture young people’s determination to make a difference: invest in jobs perhaps?

The National Baccalaureate: This should be a real hit, especially if it is “broad and balanced”. The lyrics need to spell out how it “binds all routes together” in case people hear two tunes rather than one and assume the Tech Bacc. and GCE routes will be completely separate.

Comprehensive: Not on the list, presumably because some people feel this is not one of your best tunes. These people are not your real fans. This classic speaks to all those who share your values and love your work. In one word it tells a story about schools for all offering the best possible opportunities for everyone with no limits on achievement. A contemporary arrangement will make it popular again and it can knock that “1950s grammar school nostalgia” right out of the charts.

Democracy and Equality: More inexplicable omissions from the set. “Community-focused education system” sounds good but it needs more democratic and egalitarian ballast. Let’s have a good rousing NHS-style anthem about how our education system belongs to all of us, should serve all of us and be accountable to all of us.


The concept

Two concepts are proposed, that’s one too many. The tour and album need a single signature concept to capture the imagination:

The Beautiful Ambition of 1944: This isn’t your winning concept. Universal secondary education was a great achievement, but the 1944 ‘Butler’ Act also gave us a divided system with selection. Do we really want to hark back to that? Leave this one to the historians.

One Nation: This has been around for longer and is a far stronger idea with plenty of opportunity for examples and elaboration. It builds on your critique of the “aggressively free-market experiment” and binds together all the other tracks; helping everyone achieve their promise, ending the obsession with structures and the hierarchy of schools, promoting high standards in the common school and a broad and balanced common curriculum leading to a common qualification framework for all.

Good luck with the tour and we look forward to buying your CD next spring.


See also: Labour’s vocational vision and Election 2015





About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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