Every Child Matters was one of the great success stories of the last Labour government, pushing children up the political agenda and ensuring problems like child poverty got the attention and priority they deserved. It brought particular benefits to those children – like migrant children or those with disabilities – who traditionally had been left behind. But since the last election, Michael Gove has fractured this comprehensive vision for children; targeting resources at his academies and free schools programme to the detriment of child protection and other areas and prompting concerns from the education select committee and former children’s minister that these issues had been ‘downgraded’ at the Department for Education.
Gove’s vision is based on competition, where schools are set against each other in order to compete for pupils, which inevitably means some students lose out. This is compounded by a belief that what happens in the classroom can compensate for what happens outside of it. This may work for some children, but it cannot work for all. I know from my experience of working with some of the most disadvantaged children in the country that children cannot do well at school if they are too hungry to learn or unsafe at home. The secretary of state’s distinction between high academic standards and the wider support network for those children is a false one. Making sure children are adequately fed, clothed and housed is an essential precondition for high standards, not a distraction from them.
That is why we need an education system based on collaboration in order to help all children and improve their lives outside the classroom too. We need to recognise that education is at once academic, vocational and social; that it should equip children for life and not just the workforce and should be a place where children and young people find social enlightenment, not social advantage.
A post-Gove system must focus on rebuilding the principle of ‘education for all children’, not just the lucky few. To paraphrase Andy Burnham, our kids deserve a government that has a plan for all schools and all children, not some schools and some children. Since the publication of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level we have known that inequality is bad for all of us, not just for the most disadvantaged. The last government’s London Challenge programme illustrated the benefits for all children, particularly the most disadvantaged, when schools work together for the good of all children. The challenge is to ensure that league tables support greater collaboration among schools to drive up standards for all.
The international evidence also shows that a critical factor is attracting and retaining great teachers, and ensuring they have the autonomy to make good decisions for the children in their classrooms. When I visited one of the highest performing countries, Finland, with the education select committee last year that was the lesson they urged us to come away with. Allowing teachers the space to innovate and use their professional skills and judgment should not mean we do not give chances to all children. The Greater Manchester Challenge, which followed the London Challenge, was a brilliant example of this: teachers from across Manchester shared expertise, staff and resources and adapted them to their own particular children and schools. It was innovation within a state framework – not despite the state framework, but because of it.
However, we also need to recognise that the system does not always work the first time round for some children because of other things happening in their lives. This is particularly true for children who are taken into care, who may not always follow a linear path to university and may need opportunities later in life. That is why a renewed focus on lifelong learning is essential to ensure that some children are not left behind. As Jon Cruddas points out, that was always part of the working class socialist tradition, and is surely even more important in today’s world where re-skilling is part of the fabric of modern working life.
It is clear that an incoming Labour government will inherit a situation that is dramatically different from the one that it left and its priorities must fit the reality and urgency of the challenges that creates. The school system has been fragmented, teachers are demoralised and the support for children has been stripped away. That presents a huge challenge, but a combination of collaboration, autonomy, investment in great teaching and support outside the classroom will be essential to make sure that no child is left behind.
Lisa Nandy is the Labour MP for Wigan and Shadow Minister for Children. This chapter is taken from the Fabian Society’s latest report Remaking the State: How should Labour govern?