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June 13, 2017

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A response to the Labour Party 2017 manifesto: Education policy

May 19, 2017

 

The manifesto’s focus on education is preoccupied with the need to increase education spending and to make education affordable for all learners (such as through the abolition of university tuition fees and reintroduction of the Educational Maintenance Allowance). These are apparently laudable ambitions, but their value relies on the truth of two assumptions; educational achievement is strongly dependent on education spending and educational opportunities available are of high value to learners.

 

The importance of spending on education is one of many assumptions challenged by well-known educational researcher John Hattie in his book, The Politics of Distraction. Hattie’s investigations showed a strong dependency for reading performance (as measured by the international standard of PISA scores) on per head student expenditure only in low income countries- in high income countries there is very little such dependency. In the UK, school spending rose steadily throughout the noughties, but the expenditure was not matched by improved achievement (which changed little overall and fell about as much as it rose).

 

Reasons for the weak correlation between government education spending and public education’s effectiveness involve at least two other factors; how government educational spending is spent and the access to and effectiveness of education separate from publicly funded education.

The fact that public educational spending is well correlated with educational achievement in low income countries but not high income countries is understandable in terms of people in high income countries having greater ability to become educated independently of public education through informal educational processes commensurate with comparatively enriched social and technological environments (not least, cheap internet access and leisure time to access it in).  

 

The issue of how well public money is spent on educational provision can be thought of in terms of schools’ productivity and thereby questioning how effectively schools are run. Schools operating in ways that limit their ability to benefit from increased expenditure (and perhaps also insulates them from the effects of reduced expenditure) would go a long way towards explaining the tendency for educational achievement levels to flat-line. If low quality management systems are put in place that teachers are limited by, the teaching can only be as good as the systems permit it to be (even with more teachers and more resources).

 

The Labour Manifesto includes proposals for “…giving teachers more direct involvement in the curriculum, and tackling rising workloads by reducing monitoring and bureaucracy.”, but provides no specific details about how these proposals would be implemented. An anonymously written article in the TES asks why the manifesto’s education plans say nothing about reforming/replacing school league tables and OFSTED- very much the sort of details that could make great differences to the effectiveness of educational provision and in helping increase teacher leadership and innovation (and reduce bureaucracy).

 

The manifesto also shows some awareness of systemic problems affecting education when it states that “We will abandon plans to reintroduce baseline assessments and launch a commission to look into curriculum and assessment, starting by reviewing Key Stage 1 and 2 SATs. The world’s most successful education systems use more continuous assessment, which avoids ‘teaching for the test’.” A preference for moving away from ‘teaching for the test’ is a strong positive indication, but raises the question of whether proposed continual assessment methods would avoid the problems of artificiality associated with testing if the evaluation methodologies of continual assessment would need to be standardised to a degree comparable with that of tests (such as is generally the case with many vocational qualifications currently being delivered).

 

On the issue of standardisation, the manifesto includes the commitment to “…drive up standards across the board, learning from examples of best practice, such as Labour’s London Challenge, to encourage co-operation and strong leadership across schools.”, which is suggestive in some ways of a continuation of a ‘one-size-fits-all’ based approach to education (if co-operation effectively means a managerial/procedural one-way street from better performing schools to worse performing).

 

More positively, the manifesto contains proposals that lean much further towards flexibility in educational provision than is proposed for state schools, through increasing the extent of employer involvement in educational planning. These plans primarily apply to the Further Education sector, which a Labour government would seek to expand and make freely available throughout learners’ lifetimes (inconsistently though, it would abandon the government’s plans for new technical colleges). Reduced central control of skills training provision is explicitly called for.

 

To ensure that we deliver for every part of the UK, we will devolve responsibility for skills, wherever there is an appetite, to city regions or devolved administrations.

 

although this laissez-faire approach is then rather rolled-back on.

 

“…while taking measures to ensure high quality by requiring the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education to report on an annual basis to the Secretary of State on quality outcomes of completed apprenticeships to ensure they deliver skilled workers for employers and real jobs for apprentices at the end of their training.

 

Additionally,

 

We will also consult on introducing teacher sabbaticals and placements with industry to encourage interaction between education and industry and introduce broad experiences into the classroom.

 

In recognition of the role played by private-sector providers, we would extend support for training to teachers in the private sector.

 

Increase capital investment to equip colleges to deliver T-levels and an official pre-apprenticeship trainee programme.

 

Give employers more responsibility in how the (apprenticeship) levy is deployed, including allowing the levy to be used for pre-apprenticeship programmes.

 

These ideas are not very clear or well developed but they represent a recognition of the potential role of businesses and communities in defining relevant skill requirements and methods for promotion of the development of such skills, potentially taking such decision making away from the standardisation-based agenda of compulsory education planning.

 

Furthermore, a potential willingness to expand a new FE approach to educational planning into parts of the higher education sector is mentioned.

 

Set up a commission on Lifelong Learning tasked with integrating further and higher education.

 

Beyond the scrapping of university tuition fees, the manifesto says basically nothing else about higher education. This silence is quite remarkable given today’s context of the rapid development of online distance learning methods in higher education and their associated cost reductions and potentials to expand learning practices that are more focused on learner preferences, real-world applications of learning, and on collaboration. The possibility of near-future widespread low-cost learning directed more by the preferences of communities of learners than by the preferences of the academy (whether those of its faculty or its management) does not seem to be on Labour’s educational planning radar.   

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