What is the point of manifestos, whether for education or any other policy area? Are they even worth the paper they’re written on given that we are fairly desensitised to parties straying from their election pledges in the name of realism once they win power ?
A lot of promises are going to be made in the run up to the general election and a dash of cynicism may be a healthy thing. It’s also true that manifestos can’t anticipate every situation a government will face post election. But in a democracy it is essential for us to have a sense of a party’s broad objectives and what its values and instincts are so that we have some idea what to expect from them and how they might respond to events. There’s also the small matter of accountability; governments need to justify what they do at least partly on the basis of what they said they’d do.
In the case of education, what are the available manifestos saying in broad terms about the challenges facing education in England? Let’s take a look at two of those already in the public realm. Early contributions include the Labour Party policy document ‘Education and Children’ and the National Union of Teachers’ (NUT) ‘Stand up for Education’ manifesto.
Clearly, as a trade union, the NUT is not standing for office but trying to help shape the debate. Union policies always run the risk of being dismissed as purely self-interested demands, but ‘Stand up of Education’ offers a wide ranging education policy which goes well beyond narrow member interests. In this brief personal evaluation of these two manifestos I have focused on broad strategy and deliberately left out any recommendations relating to teacher pay and conditions.
1. The curriculum:
NUT: All students should be entitled to benefit from a broad, balanced and enriching curriculum. A coherent 14-19 qualifications framework is needed, which unifies all learning routes, both academic and vocational. A new national council for curriculum and assessment should be established to bring together teachers, employers and parents to develop an exciting vision for education.
Labour: A clear high-quality route for young people not choosing university. Transforming vocational education will promote social mobility and deliver the skilled workforce needed for a better, stronger economy. A gold-standard Technical Baccalaureate. An overarching national baccalaureate framework for all post-16 students. It should prepare young people for citizenship, skilled work, Higher Education and further learning throughout life. Education of the whole child for the whole of life lived responsibly and rewardingly alongside others, at work and in society.
Verdict: Labour still seems a bit torn between the ‘two nation’ Tech Bac to reform current vocational qualifications, which they claim have ‘failed abysmally’, and the more ‘one nation’ National Bacc, which is not getting much airtime in their speeches. The coalition has already introduced a Tech Bac very much along the same lines and simply putting ‘gold standard’ in front of the proposal is not enough to distinguish Labour’s version. It is also misleading to claim that new vocational qualifications can improve economic performance. The NUT’s clear statement offers a more unequivocal ‘one nation’ solution.
2. Standards and school improvement:
NUT: There should be a new approach to evaluating schools that involves teachers, parents and local communities. Local authorities should inspect schools to ensure that school self-evaluation is accurate and valid. League tables should be replaced by national sampling.
Labour: Constant vigilance in maintaining high standards of teaching and efforts to improve schools that have fallen behind. Ensure that the inspection process is more collaborative and that schools improvement involves schools reviewing one another and monitoring by the middle tier as well as the national inspectorate.
Verdict: The NUT is proposing what appears to be a very devolved approach to standards monitoring which leaves some questions unanswered: what is national sampling? Would there be any role for a national inspectorate to guarantee national consistency? Labour seems to be suggesting a balance between the local and the national.
3. School status and autonomy:
NUT: Stop the forced academies programme immediately. Return oversight of all state funded schools to local authorities – whilst maintaining appropriate levels of autonomy on curriculum and assessment. Give local authorities back the legal powers they need to plan and provide enough school places in their local areas.
Labour: End the government’s free schools programme. Ensure existing free schools become part of the local family of schools. Ensure all schools serve their local communities and follow the admissions code. Extend to all schools the freedoms academies can use to innovate and raise standards. Local authorities will be able to open new community schools.
Verdict: Both include a welcome restoration of some local system leadership with a planning and oversight role for elected local authorities.
4. The education market:
NUT: Any future government must rule out the idea that schools could be run for profit. A halt to all further privatisation or outsourcing of education services and schools. An end to the marketisation of education and all policies that inhibit cooperation between schools. Restore funding for high quality local authority services for schools and families.
Labour: has spoken out against privatisation of schools but this hasn’t yet made it into this policy statement.
Verdict: A stronger statement from Labour against the marketisation of education along the lines of Andy Burnham’s on the NHS would be very welcome. So far, the NUT offers a more reassuring red line in defence of the public service ethos.
5. Democracy and accountability:
NUT: Restore the role of the local authority as the democratic local organisation responsible for education. Each local council should have a director of education to ensure consistency and equality and a good local school for every child. The Government should provide sufficient funding to enable them to do so. End approvals for free schools and give all schools the right to return to the status of local community schools.
Labour: Strong local oversight of all schools. Real local accountability for all schools. New directors of school standards appointed by, and accountable to, local authorities.
Verdict: The NUT has a clearer commitment to local authority oversight but neither really addresses the need for democratic structures at a more strategic regional or subregional level. Labour’s new directors of school standards are not directly elected or accountable to local people, they could still be rather remote bureaucrats.
The NUT commitments are stronger, clearer and better expressed and their manifesto is a better campaigning tool. Labour has much good policy but needs to ditch some of the empty rhetoric and sharpen up some of its proposals if it wants to make education policy a real vote-winner in the 2015 election.
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