‘How Labour’s big ideas for education reform are chiming with parents’

Unlike 1997, education is not going to be a top tier issue at the next election. That will be reserved for just two areas; the NHS and the cost of living will dominate the headlines and the debates.

But that is not to say other issues won’t be important. Immigration will be hotly discussed, as will the climate crisis and net zero. I have long believed that education will be something that bubbles up the agenda rather more than it has for the last few years.

Crumbling concrete ceilings, funding cuts and teacher strikes have seen to that. Parents – a voting block of 14 million – have started to notice that the school system is falling apart.

And so it is now incumbent on Labour and its Shadow Education Secretary Bridget Phillipson to demonstrate that they have a compelling vision of how secondaries and primaries could be improved under their watch. This can’t just be about more funding and more teachers (however important they are).

Similarly, I’ve heard teacher and headteacher unions have repeatedly told the shadow frontbench team that there is little capacity for ‘shock and awe’ reform. Michael Gove’s radical changes, combined with years of austerity and the pandemic, have left teachers completely exhausted.

Our research shows parents like Labour’s vision for education

Despite this challenge, Phillipson (and to some extent Starmer) has begun to articulate a vision for schools – increasing the focus and broadening what is on offer in the classroom – and I’m delighted to report that there is a lot of appetite among parents for what they’re offering.

Today, Public First, where I am a partner, has published a major piece of opinion research looking at public (and teacher) appetite for reform of accountability and curriculum reform. Our work, which was backed by the Laidlaw Foundation, found that mums, dads and carers were as clear as Labour – or perhaps even more clear – that the focus of primaries and secondaries has become too narrowed with a focus on too few subjects.

So too do they share a strong desire to see a greater extracurricular offering of sport, music, drama and the rest – and they share Labour’s instincts that, especially when compared to what is on offer in independent schools, this is a social justice issue.

Our research was completed before the inquest into the death of Ruth Perry was complete, but parents in our work were already moving towards Labour’s current position on Ofsted. Replacing one-word judgements (inadequate, outstanding etc) with a balanced ‘report card‘ is very popular. Nearly 95% back it.

Those who hark back to the education policy under Jeremy Corbyn should take note, however: some form of accountability is very popular, and advocating for Ofsted’s abolition would prove a big vote loser.

The necessary reform will take lots of time – and lots of money

Labour must be careful not to go in too strongly on the idea of ripping up the curriculum altogether (perhaps in the style of the SNP’s curriculum for excellence). There is still very strong support for a strong, and broadly traditional, approach to academic outcomes. On this too, I think Phillipson’s instincts are aligned with voters.

But if we are to broaden the curriculum and ramp up the extracurricular offer without diluting the academic focus or exhausting still further an already exhausted teaching profession, then that will only be possible by substantially investing in a longer school day with much more support for a re-energised schools workforce. Labour’s policy on breakfast clubs hints at this direction of travel too.

Such major reform, radically increasing the envelope of schools work, will take lots of time and lots of money. It would be, to borrow from Starmer’s conference speech, a ten-year period of “national renewal” for schools. Schools can be so much more than they are today – they can become civic anchors, often in communities that are desperately in need of this kind of support.

To deliver it will need major buy-in from the profession, but it will also need the Chancellor in the Labour government to prioritise schools and teachers for major investment as soon as the magic money tree grows some branches.

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