Saturday, September 12, 2015

10 Corbyn education policies that actually make good sense

I’m no Corbyn fan but his BIG idea in education (NES) is way beyond the pale, insipid Tristram Hunt policies that typified the last Labour leadership's educational policy. I was highly critical of Hunt's approach. Actually, it wasn’t a policy at all. They decided to keep the issue off the political canvas, as they largely agreed with the Conservatives. No difference, don’t mention it. Thankfully the hapless Hunt has resigned. But what does our Jeremy really promise in education? He outlined his ideas here but I've speculated a little, based on past pronouncements and alliances.
1. National Education Service
In his acceptance speech he thanked the "Socialist Education Association". Their ideas have informed his policy. It was they who want to  develop a single, broad and inclusive framework for the curriculum from early years to adult education’. The emphasis on a universal (comprehensive) system, with equality of opportunity at its heart, is exactly what this organisation recommends.
So what is the National Education Service? Corbyn equates it with the National Health Service - free at the point of delivery. So far, so good. This is a fine idea. The world of learning is like the separate horizontal layers of an old, stale cake. Pre-school, primary, secondary, sixth form, FE, HE, adult learning. Yet individual learners go on a vertical journey and have to smash through each of these horizontal layers in turn, often failing, getting disillusioned and the net result is a system where nobody’s happy – learners, teachers or parents. We need to see learning as a lifelong experience, like health.
It may also align education with health in another fashion, with a focus on evidence-based teaching and learning. We have long compared education with medicine, showing that one has advanced while the other has remained largely static in terms of both delivery and outcomes. Here's an opportunity to take the research and professionalisation agenda seriously. The problem he faces is that teachers want professionalisation but then go all woozy when it comes to professional standards and a research and evidence-based approach to teaching and learning. You want to be like the NHS, then make the whole thing student-centred, in the same way that health is patient-centred.
The NES needs to be fleshed out. How will it be funded, run and organised? He has to reconcile his belief that Local Authorities should build and run schools v a NES. You can do what is currently done with the NHS - directly funded by Government, lots of control, appoint a CEO, free at point of delivery but with professional bodies, such as NICE, recommending and publishing guidelines (Ben Goldacre has written smartly about the need for a NICE model in education). A second model is the BBC-type model, where you set up a separate Trust, at arms-length from Government. This is unlikely as control is what they want and probably need, to get things done. A third model is a highly devolved model back to Local Authorities but this is dangerous as many could be hostile. Unfortunately, that's the chosen model, bringing all free schools and academies under local authority or Mayoral control.
But remember also, that it is not possible to have a ‘National’ Education Service. What he means is an 'English' Education Service. Scotland, Wales and NI, long disgusted by the political shenanigans in England, have long gone. Nevertheless there may be room for more alignment, as this is the model they sort of have elsewhere.
2. More vocational
It also unifies the funding. I’m in favour of unifying educational funding as it oils the wheels for more rational decisions, especially the balance between academic and vocational. HE has had its own way for too long. It’s bloated and over-funded. We need to rebalance HE with a stronger approach to vocational. Curiously, Corbyn is more aligned with the Conservatives and their 3 million apprenticeship promise at the last election. But his view of apprenticeships is not one of being employer-led. It would be accredited by FE (that's weird) and employers. This is a bit fuzzy but there is a clear need for a properly defined and funded apprenticeship system, which to be fair, the Conservatives have structured through a levy. It has cross-party appeal.  The good news is that he really does value ‘skills’ and wants to stop the deep erosion of FE and the adult skills budgets. It's anti-Blairite and it's right. One sad footnote - he wants to pay the minimum wage to apprentices - this is not necessary. To create a viable system we neeed to recognise that overloading it with costs is unwise.
3. Scrapping University fees
He wants to scrap fees but also reintroduce grants. This is par for the socialist course but it has consequences, not least the subsidising of the rich by the poor. The majority of young people do NOT go to University and there's growing evidence that the Blair policy didn't work as it crushed alternatives to the expensive HE path. Yet this is the only Corbyn policy that gets any attention in education, as the middle class have sharper elbows - that's a distorted shame.
4. Online education?
He’s a fan of the Open University, saw it as a socialist triumph, and talks about it fondly and explicitly as a great Labour achievement. Good on him. I agree, and hope that he will expand on this online approach to education. Tom Watson's a digitally sophisticated politician and really does get this stuff.
5. Get rid of charitable status for private schools?
Keiza Dugdale, Corbyn’s emissary in Scotland, has hung her hat on this policy in education and I’m sure Corbyn agrees and will attempt to do this south of the border. This is long overdue. The Conservatives and, unfortunately, the hapless Tristram Hunt, was in thrall to this elitist system. It's unlikely they will call for its abolition but we do have to see them as the businesses they are and recognise that they are a major force in creating inequality.
6. Scrap Grammar Schools and 11+
He want to scrap all Grammar Schools and the 11+. Indeed, this was romoured to be the cause of his divorce. This has long been a stupid anomaly in England and causes no end of chest beating in the Conservative Party. David Willets, one of the smartest people in the Conservative government, was sidelined and eventually sacked, just because he held this belief, so it is not a mad, loony-left policy but a mainstream belief. Good policy, let's get it done.
7. Fewer tests
Fewer tests! Thanks God. This taps into the widespread view among teachers and parents that this has got out of control. However, the hard-left have a habit of sticking with centralised state-control in education , so don't hold your breath. The SNP, north of the border have just introduced another raft of testing.
8. No league tables for schools
Yipee. Again this taps into the zeitgeist about education being a right, not a competitive market. We don;t have league tables for hospitals, nether should we for schools. Education is far too important to turn into a competitive sports spectacle.
9. Single examination boards?
My guess is that he’d also unify examination boards, A Gove idea but a good one nevertheless. It’s what they have in Scotland and makes a NES that much easier to implement. the current boards can barely handle the quality control necessary for an efficient system and every year we have unanswerable or stupid question items. Schools also cherry-pick (on what basis I wonder?).
10. Corporation tax
On costs he wants to add 2% to corporation tax. This is reasonable, and matches the ‘levy’ the Conservatives want to load on to employers for apprenticeships. In many ways this is easier to implement and redistributes profits into training. The problem here is that this raises only £3 billion. This nowhere near covers what Corbyn is proposing. So, as usual, the policies are not costed.
One worry I have is that, in education, Corbyn has a pretty dismal personal record. He was pampered through fee-paying prep and boarding schools but only got two E grades at A-level. (You get an E for turning up.). He then dropped out of his University course for disagreeing with his tutors. Wow. 
Also, Lucy Powell, appointed Shadow Education post, is an apparatchik politician - school, Oxford, party HQ, assistant jobs, MP. Far from stellar, she's a bit of a Labour clone. On the upside Angela Eagle, who should have this portfolio, is a formidable and capable politician. BIS has always been badly run with lacklustre civil servants. It needs a shake-up.
At least it’s a bold idea, roughly in line with what many want. But to pull this off you have to centralise funding agencies (a good idea) and save costs. Yet, the idea also brings in its wake the usual quango-building. Corbyn is unlikely to go for a merger approach, so we’ll likely end up with a profusion of bodies with a large administrative centre. That’s worrying. Bureaucracy may be its downfall. One last point. Why is almost everyone in education ignoring these policies, other than student fees? Is the teaching profession sweeping actual policies and reforms under hte carpet with a focus on the one polocy that affects their kids - University fees? A conundrum.


Unknown said...

Robust as ever, Donald and I broadly agree with your assessment of the Corbyn policies. I do think (and share Corbyn's views) that the wholesale devastation of Further Education is a strangely low key policy which this government (and the coalition before them) have embarked on. The fact that this has passed without more outrage is astonishing to me.

The apprenticeship system and increases in apprenticeship numbers being run and delivered in great part by FE is a positive step and will remove some of the abuses of this system. We already have examples of employees being 'moved' on to apprenticeship schemes. This reduces the requirements on employers to pay minimum wage and rather than increasing the level of training undertaken, simply enables employers to access funding for programmes they should already have been providing.

There are also egregious examples of employees finding out that they were 'apprentices' only when they received their payslips and discovered that a minimum wage job turns out to mean £3.30 rather than the £6.70 they expected. If the apprentice doesn't even know they are an apprentice, we can assume that the training on offer is not receiving the level of attention it should. See here: Enrolment at an FE college will at least amend that abuse.

I agree that the education policies presented in the last Labour manifesto were poor and almost indistinguishable from the Tories and it is a source of hope that we now have a meaningful alternative which one would hope will mean a real debate.

Henry Stewart said...

Excellent summary and speculation, Don. Though optimistic methinks. I can't see even Corbyn actually abolishing grammar schools despite all the evidence of the harm that selective systems do to the prospects of all but the best-off in any area.

Also it would be hard to find the money now to provide free university education. Though the Labour idea of a graduate tax always seemed better than loans - and my view would be such a tax should apply to all graduates. Why should we oldies get off lightly, when the young are being hammered?

The one key point you miss out are the stated plan to make all state schools (including academies and free schools) accountable to their local authority. How much sense this will make is obvious from the school places problem: LAs are responsible for school places, but aren't currently allowed to create new schools or make academies increase their roles. An impossible position to be in?

Lucy Powell is, as you will no doubt agree, a big improvement on what has gone before. Personally I would propose Pat Glass (currently Shadow for Europe) who I think has been a headteacher and has certainly held Assistand Director of Education positions (in Sunderland and Greenwich).

Other good future candidates include Lisa Nandy and the up-and-coming Clive Lewis (experience actually ex-military & BBC but passionate about education).