Is Labour Learning for the Future?

For fear of stating the obvious, education is about the future. It’s not just about giving children the best start or a foundation for life; education should also be a lifelong habit. We all need to keep learning.

Governments are no different. We need to keep learning the lessons of what has and hasn’t worked so we can find new ways to tackle new challenges. Like all good leaders we need to anticipate the future and make sure the government and the country are well placed to deal with what is coming.

Choice in the public sector

James Purnell makes the argument for embracing public service delivery, so that we create a self-reforming system. This is more and more important as we face ever increasing rapidity of change due to globalisation and technological innovation.

Developing choice for parents and pupils is a fundamental part of the current wave of education reforms. It is worth pausing to reflect on the last nine years in power to see why this is necessary.

The challenge in 1997 was to radically improve standards from a base where the majority were being failed by schools. We have thrown loads more money at the problem — real terms funding has increased by £1,440 per pupil (47%).We’ve expanded the workforce and reduced class sizes. There are 36,200 more teachers, and over 100,000 more support staff. We've reformed the curriculum with priorities such as the literacy and numeracy hours. We’ve devolved more money direct to schools and in return we’ve changed the inspection regime alongside the introduction of targets and tables to motivate improvement in individual schools.

This maximum use of the levers available from the centre has worked, but only up to a point. The improvement in results is unprecedented. We have the best ever results at primary schools, GCSEs and A Levels, and more pupils than ever are going on to University. What was only 45% achieving the standard 5 GCSEs is now 56%. But that statistic in itself exposes the limitation of command and control from the centre.

Command and control from the centre hasn't worked for too many of the children that need our help the most. There are still far too many pupils insufficiently motivated to achieve their potential, too many with individual needs not being addressed.

Why choice?

The answer is not just to throw more money and more teachers at them. We have shown that this works for the low hanging fruit but we’ve got to do better for the hard to reach pupils.

The answer is to be more fine-grained, more personalised. It is to offer more choice. It is to give power from the centre to parents — even if that means devolution that in some circumstances bypasses local government. I do not see this as an attack on democracy, more a redefinition of democracy to create a more powerful direct accountability from school to parent.

Harnessing direct accountability through parental and pupil choice, through parent councils and a new strategic commissioning role for councils is at the heart of our drive for more specialist schools and trust schools.

But is that enough? Will the delivery of choice suddenly lift the educational chances of our most disadvantaged youngsters? What of the charge from many in education that choice creates a market, and markets create losers as well as winners? Or that choice is fine in urban areas, but is meaningless in rural ones? Or that voters are not interested in choice, they just want their local school to be the best.

We may want our local school to be the best, but no school can be the best for every child — for a talented mathematician, and an elite sports student, and a ballet prodigy, and a child with profound learning difficulties. Specialist schools have been successful by offering a choice of high quality local providers, often working in collaboration.

Choice is not the answer to everything but it creates the right mix of provision to make it easier for individuals to find the service that suits their needs, and it is a more flexible system for governments to make targeted interventions to address those unable to take advantage of the benefits of choice.

There is an important difference between the Tory vision of choice in the public sector and a New Labour vision. New Labour has rejected the command economy in the public services. Uniform provision does not respond to individual need, and monopolistic state providers can struggle to acknowledge failures in their own service delivery. But we also reject unfettered free markets as promoted by the Conservative right. Just giving the individual consumer of public services the power of choice through vouchers, or a similar mechanism, is not enough. That takes money out of public services and into elitist private provision, and it does nothing to address the needs of the most disadvantaged.

We believe in a mixed economy. Choice in the public sector creates a different type of market from a private sector driven by profit and loss. Success in the public sector is not about more profit for shareholders, it is about ever-improving services for consumers. Failing public providers can not go bust, but they can be replaced. Where there is not a choice of good quality providers then Government, locally or nationally, should intervene to provide such choice — be it through a City Academy or increased transport provision.

A choice-driven public sector retains democratic control of policy. Governments, locally or nationally, set standards, listen to local public voices, and are accountable through the ballot box. Delivery is devolved to the front line — to a range of providers that are free to respond to local need and thereby improve public service. The split between commissioning and delivering is the way we offer personalised service that up to now has been the privileged preserve of those that can pay privately.

I would therefore argue that choice is a fundamental part of the future of educational provision.

But choice in public service delivery is not the argument that will win us elections. This is an important political debate to be had in think tanks and Westminster but it is meaningless on the doorstep. Elections are won more on the basis of what we are going to do, not out of gratitude for what we have done or the theory of good Government.

The future educational landscape

So where will we be in ten years time? The current pace of change makes that very difficult to predict but we can project where the decisions we are making will take us.

The Building Schools for the Future programme will be well advanced. By 2020 we will have rebuilt or fully refurbished all secondary schools in a way that integrates great design and vision with the latest technology to transform the learning environment.

Labour will extend choice into the curriculum to increase motivation and meet individual need. The 14 new specialised diplomas will be on offer to every 14 year old, giving them a choice between the traditional academic route of GCSEs and A levels or new modern qualifications designed by employers and respected by universities. The mix of vocational and academic will be improve skills and motivation for many young people in education. Children at this age will be based in a school but probably attending lessons and courses at other schools and colleges.

There will be a new range of choice for parents and pupils at 11 — community specialist schools, city academies, faith schools, and trust schools with new types of external partners from public, academic, private and voluntary sectors. Strong schools will be collaborating to offer curriculum choices at 14 but each different in specialism and ethos. Each will deliver a more personalised education.

Finally, schools will also have an extended role in their communities. The focus will remain on standards but with the expanded workforce they will also be able to help with the other needs of children. Through Every Child Matters health and welfare services can be available through school, services that can in turn reach out to form stronger partnerships with parents. Schools will have extended hours to offer more "catch up" and "stretching" lessons, more after school clubs — in other words, more attention to the all-round needs of each individual child.

Schools of the future — a plurality of providers

This will be where our current policies and programmes will take us. It won't be perfect, we'll make mistakes, we are human. However the direction is clear. This Government has won the political argument on education and there is no sign of any alternative ideas that carry substantial support from the left or right. But there will be new opportunities and challenges.

When specialist schools were first proposed they were controversial and seen as divisive. Now 80% of secondary schools are specialist and some are acquiring second and third specialisms. Over the next few years we will also see the clear benefits of academies and trusts with new and more imaginative partners for schools.

Trusts were wrongly seen by many solely as ways of involving business more actively and formally in schools. However, some of the original inspiration came from Sweden where they have parents' schools. The first parents' school is developing in Lambeth now. Could we have more co-operative schools?

As businesses get more involved to both address their skills needs and put something back into the community through their staff, could we see the same for trade unions? The existing union learning reps in workplaces are a huge success and demonstrate the traditional trade union commitment to education. So why not have unions involved in schools alongside their industrial partners? Airbus and Amicus together involved in schools with engineering and technology specialisms in Filton and Broughton for example?

Could there be other public sector partners? Some independent schools, like Wellington College, were established for the education of officers’ children and continue to do so. What of the other ranks? Why not Armed Forces Trust schools, particularly in areas like the garrison towns of Wiltshire? Do the armed forces have something to offer in terms of ethos, governance, and motivation? And what of the voluntary sector? Let’s have the debate.

Green schools

Climate change is our biggest challenge for the future. We will meet our Kyoto targets and see the effect of our policies to reduce carbon emissions. The next wave of policies will need to put the UK in a leadership position so that we can grasp the opportunities in environmental industries, developing the alternative technologies to allow continued economic growth and carbon neutrality.

In turn this means continued investment in our science base and knowledge economy. We are now seeing improvements in our science and maths results in schools and some improvement in teacher recruitment, but persistent problems remain, in physics in particular. I am confident that the work of science learning centres, and the introduction of the specialised diplomas for 14-19 year olds, will help motivate more children to stay in education and build the skills employers are asking for.

But we need to push this further. Why not use the early development of trust schools to target universities and businesses and charities that are active in this area and seek their directly involvement in encouraging young people to work in these new environmental industries? As part of Building Schools for the Future can we develop a network of Specialist Environment Colleges that, beyond having built-in carbon neutrality, motivate pupils into all the sciences and humanities using the challenges and opportunities posed by climate change?

Environment Trust schools could bring a powerful new ethos of sustainability, of "what goes around comes around". The ethos and partnership in faith schools is strongly valued by the majority of parents. Why not develop a secular alternative rooted in the values of the environmental movement?

Global schools

The biggest unknowns of the future are the effects of globalisation and the pace of technological change. Both are opportunities for schools.

Already we see almost all schools with broadband, with excellent ratios of pupils to computers, and with teaching enhanced by the use of interactive whiteboards. This Government's investment in school IT has made us a global pioneer in the use of technology to transform education. We are starting to see the use of podcasts by teachers, "moodling" to allow pupils to access, complete and submit coursework to teachers online, and trials with children in Wolverhampton using handheld computers.

IT in schools is no longer about infrastructure; it is about the imaginative and enterprising use of what it can do. The software is still underdeveloped. I want to bring together our world class games software industry and our leading university media schools, and put this country at the forefront of global educational software.

We can also bring diverse cultures and languages closer to pupils through technology. In 2012 we are hosting what will be the biggest global event ever in the London Olympics. It has already captured the imagination of millions of children who are freshly motivated into sport.

But the legacy can be even greater. We can use the excitement of the Olympics to link schools in this country with others from Olympic nations around the world. Through technology, live interaction and learning can take place/ Our children can be proud of and assert our culture and learning about other places and the importance of other language — teachers in the classroom facilitating children learning Mandarin direct from native Chinese speakers.

Most importantly the opportunity offered by technology is to make education more personalised. There will be opportunities for more variety of learning, of pace and challenge.

As we develop more personalised education I also see learning being enriched to teach "quality of life". The focus on standards, particularly the skills needed for employers, is non-negotiable. But as we try to engage the most difficult to reach and raise their standards it will be by offering them something more personally enriching. This maybe outside the classroom, it maybe on the sports pitch, in the studio, or in amongst an iconic English landscape; it maybe through technology — opening learning windows to people and places anywhere in the world.

Testing and tables have led some to accuse New Labour of a utilitarian approach to education. We needed tough focussed action to lift a system that was failing too many and I won"t apologise for that. We need more fun and more education for its own sake — but not at the expense of standards. This Government has shown that it is possible to deliver economic efficiency and social justice, we can do the same in education — tough on standards as well as fun and enriching personalised learning.

Conclusion

We can be certain that in the future we need a population with more skills, more knowledge and an appetite for learning. The schools of the future need to offer variety and choice so that the individual can access an education that motivates, excites, inspires and suits them as a person. All schools will need to keep changing and adapting to meet that challenge, not because of dictat from the centre but because it is what the local situation demands.

Government will have to performance manage the system, not by command and control but by proper resourcing in return for clear delivery on outcomes. Intervention by a Labour Government will be to help those in disadvantage otherwise unable to benefit from the advantages of choice. Despite everything that has been achieved with more resources and improved standards, there are still too many children born into disadvantage who are not being given an equal opportunity by education. They remain our challenge and the test of success. This must always be the test for progressive politicians of the left and marks Labour's enduring divide with whatever version of Conservatism is served up from the right.

Jim Knight MP is Minister of State for Schools in the British Labour Government.

We encourage readers to write responses to this article and send them to Alan Johnson, Social Democratic Futures editor, at alanjohnsonsdf

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