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The Lib Dems have come up with detailed education policies. Why can’t Labour?

The Lib Dems have come up with detailed education policies. Why can’t Labour?
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The row about who should chair Labour’s National Policy Forum, which overshadowed its recent meeting, is probably of limited interest to anyone not preoccupied by the party’s factional tussles, but it did have one important consequence: little discussion seems to have taken place about policy.

It is debatable how much influence the party’s policy-making body has had in the last 20 years. For much of Labour’s time in power, change emerged from one or two powerful individuals at the heart of government rather than the party’s more democratic policy commissions.

But given the emphasis on grassroots involvement and membership participation under the current leadership, and the importance most Labour activists place on the role of education in creating a fairer, more equitable society, the lack of any serious debate about the mounting challenges a Labour government might face is odd and frustrating.

It is more than two and a half years since the idea of a National Education Service was floated in Jeremy Corbyn’s first leadership campaign. It has survived another leadership challenge and a general election, but we know little more about what its worthy principles – unified, free, cradle to grave, democratically accountable, inclusive education – might mean in practice.

My hunch is that for all the talk about grassroots involvement, nothing much has changed since the Blair years and decision making is still tightly controlled by a few people at the centre, probably in the leader’s office.

This leaves the engaging shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, with little to do beyond vigorously opposing the few initiatives that emerge from a Brexit-bound cabinet, a task for which her hands are tied by the lack of detail about what Labour would do instead.

I would be very happy if someone could prove me wrong as, for the National Education Service to work, some thorny questions need to be answered. How do you make schools locally accountable when more than 7,000 are now run through a commercial contract with the secretary of state? How do you prioritise inclusion with so many selective and semi-selective schools? What does a joined-up admissions framework look like?

Civil servants have been agonising over a fair funding formula for more than five years, and still haven’t come up with anything that doesn’t leave as many losers as winners. How would Labour do this differently?

The proposed Labour commission to look at curriculum and assessment and “teaching to the test” is a good idea but why not start now, at a time when there are growing concerns about the way the accountability system is driving negative, even unethical, behaviour in schools, something that should be laid at the government’s door.

Coincidentally, just as I sat down to write this column, an email popped into my inbox from the Lib Dems, announcing a package of detailed education reforms, including changes to Ofsted and the league tables, proposals to address the question of the “middle tier” between government and schools, and changes to the curriculum as well as spending pledges.

Labour got a long way at the last election by promising to spend more money. But what matters is how that money is spent and what sort of behaviour it incentivises. Simply pouring cash into a system that is plainly malfunctioning isn’t good enough.

The Labour party shouldn’t assume it can take the “interested in education” section of the electorate for granted. It is a large and diverse group, including education professionals, governors and, of course, parents.

Parents and teachers have a right to know what would happen in their schools and to their children if Labour were in power. The big vision matters but translating that into action can’t be put off for ever.

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