With two weeks to go Labour education policy gets a sharper edge.

When I woke up this morning, something rather unexpected was happening. Alongside “milifandom”, Tristram Hunt was trending on Twitter. Not it would seem because he’s a sex god to rank alongside his leader, but as a result of a Guardian interview which moved Labour’s education policy forward in ways that met with almost universal approval.

The headline was that we may see the back of GCSE in ten years. What lies behind this is the first solid commitment from the leadership to a unified 14 to 19 baccalaureate framework incorporating both academic and vocational qualifications. This involves recognising that 19 not 16 is the age that matters and that the curriculum and the assessment framework needs to build up to that point in a consistent and coherent way. As Hunt says about GCSE in the interview:

“you would not have a suite of exams based on you leaving school when you would not actually be leaving school”.

Hunt is clear that this won’t happen overnight. He recognises that schools can’t cope with more huge upheaval and that any new system needs to be based on a consensus. It would be pointless to get so far in five years and then see everything overturned by a new government. What is needed is to build a head of steam behind changes to the point that change becomes irreversible. This has to be a more mature approach than Gove’s “bull in a china shop” style.

Elsewhere in the interview, Hunt returns to his familiar theme of broadening education beyond the acquisition of knowledge to include the development of skills, qualities and broader cultural capital. he is absolutely right to identify that supporting disadvantaged pupils is about much more than bashing them through a few tests – giving them access to a wide range of experiences and engagement with more adults is essential.

Finally, tucked away at the end of the article, is the first attempt to link schools with the emerging pattern of devolution in England. It envisages “groups of local authorities such as greater Manchester, Sheffield or Nottinghamshire assuming responsibility for school education”. They would appoint Directors of School Standards with responsibility for commissioning schools and maintaining standards. This represents a significantly more definite commitment to local democracy than anything we’ve heard before.

All in all a distinctly more specific and radical set of proposals then. It’s a shame that we’ve had to wait until so close to the election before hearing them but it’s important that the message gets out that there may a greater appetite for change after May 7th than some thought.

The Guardian interview is at http://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/apr/22/labour-ditch-gcse-10-years-tristram-hunt

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7 Comments on “With two weeks to go Labour education policy gets a sharper edge.”

  1. Gary Brooke says:

    Perhaps you should rephrase that to “bully in a china shop”? And yes, this sounds very promising and rather grown up. How novel after five years prejudice, privatisation and vandalism.

  2. terryloane says:

    Yes, getting rid of GCSE would be a small but significant step in the right direction, i.e. away from schools as exam factories. The whole idea of having an exam tied to a particular chronological age is surely damaging nonsense anyway, and leads to stress and disillusionment all round. There are, of course, far better methods than exams for assessing and reporting on what an individual has done and can do. But if we must have exams then the tradition of graded music exams offers a much better model, I feel. Each student simply takes an exam at a particular level when ready rather than taking a particular exam at a particular age.

    Are the GCSE abolition proposals in the Labour manifesto?

  3. David Pavett says:

    I was pleased to find Tristram Hunt speaking of the end of GCSEs and their replacement by a baccalaureate of some sort. The first problem with the interview is that we are given no idea of what sort. The word “baccalaureate” has been debased by Gove’s “English Baccalaureate” which was based on GCSE’s. An additional worry is the English predilection for “framework qualifications” that are a repackaging of existing qualifications (from CPVE to Labour’s vocational diplomas when last in office).

    But from that initial partial agreement I found that the interview got steadily worse. Not for the first time Tristram Hunt attempts to demonstrate his knowledge of educational research by reference to US authors and US experience. What is wrong with using the high quality UK research available on the issues discussed? I suspect that referring to US work is a way of avoiding direct debate with those most intimately concerned with research in to education on his home patch. Not only that by the two works referred to focus on the formation of “character” and reviews in the US and the UK have commented on the originality of the solutions offered and the blind eye turned towards inequality in society. (See the Guardian review of Our Kids.)

    I was not as impressed as John by the claim that Labour wanted to hand back responsibility for education to local authorities. Tristram Hunt says that there would be about 30 Directors of School Standards. (First time we have been given any information about that.) That is about one for every five local authorities. So five local authorities would combine to appoint a DSS from a government approved list (if the Blunkett Report is anything to go by – and we don’t have anything else) and would, when appointed, be “statutorily independent” of those authorities in the exercise of his/her powers including the creation of new schools (on the basis of competitive tender). This doesn’t sound to me like a turn to local democratic involvement. Or is there something I have missed that shows it to be so?

    P.S. Why are ideas like the move away from GCSE’s,a medium/long-term aim being introduced at this stage with zero discussion inside the Labour Party? Is this the way we can expect further changes to be made?

  4. bassey355 says:

    Agreed. Good at last to see some sense coming from Labour on education.

  5. brumcase says:

    There are some positive proposals in Hunt’s Guardian interview but the proposal to transfer responsibility for school education to the new Combined Authorities is not one of them. On the contrary, it would remove it from even the very limited local democratic accountability that exists at present through elected cabinet members for education and education scrutiny committees.

    And this historic change in the role of local government in education is being proposed for the first time as an afterthought in a newspaper interview, with no public discussion at all. There is no mention of it in ‘Labour’s proposals to devolve economic power and funding’, its policy document on devolution published only a couple of months ago in February. It is a scandalous abuse of democracy.

    Tristram Hunt ‘said he would like to see groups of local authorities such as in Greater Manchester … assuming responsibility for school education’. In the Greater Manchester model, the responsibility for the school systems of the 10 local authorities in the Combined Authority would be handed over to just 11 people – that’s the ‘devo-Cabinet’ comprising the 10 council leaders and the directly elected mayor who will run the Greater Manchester Combined Authority.

    But unlike a council Cabinet they will not be answerable to a Greater Manchester council made up of all the elected councillors because there won’t be one. Nor will they be held to account by an Education Scrutiny Committee for Greater Manchester because there won’t be one of those either.

    You might think that Labour would advocate a more democratic model. But there has not been a word of criticism from the Labour leadership of the profound democratic deficit in the GMCA. Nor does Labour’s devolution policy document contain a single concrete proposal on local democracy.

    In reality the real power in Hunt’s scenario will lie with the Combined Authority’s Director of School Standards, who though appointed by the CA (from a shortlist provided by the secretary of state) will be ‘statutorily independent’ of it, not acting on its behalf and accountable to it as a normal council officer would be. So it will be the DSS who makes the decisions about new schools, for example, not the ‘devolution Cabinet’ members, let alone the elected councillors in the CA.

    Under the DSS regime local authorities will be virtually powerless. The local education agenda becomes reduced to the DSS’s remit to ‘drive up standards’. There is no conception of a broader and inspiring local vision for education developed through democratic discussion with all the stakeholders, including teachers, governors, parents, schoolstudents themselves, and local communities, and no structures within which such a discussion could take place. Instead we have a new technicist-bureaucratic regime – the Tories’ centralised control transferred to the regional level.

    Integral to the question of democracy is the question of scale. While CAs might be appropriate for some public services and policy-making – for example regarding economic development or transport – their scale is not suited to democratic participation in the governance and accountability of local school systems. The proposed West Midlands CA, for example, which would comprise six local authorities, would contain around a thousand state schools, far too many for a DSS to engage with effectively.

    So rather than welcome Hunt’s proposal (unthought through as it is) we should oppose it and argue for school education to remain the responsibility of local authorities, and for these to be radically democratised to open them up to public participation. There should of course be collaboration on education between local authorities within a CA as appropriate.

    Whoever forms a government after May the policy of devolution to CAs will go ahead, in spite of protest (there is a trade union-led campaign in Manchester to demand a referendum). We should argue for CAs to be based on elected regional assemblies. This is the principle: there are several possible models. The assembly could be directly elected with proportional representation, as is the London Assembly and in part the Welsh Assembly. (Wales has a popular of 3 million, not that much bigger than GMCA’s 2.7m or WMCA’s 2.5m.) Or it could comprise a selection of councillors from the constituent local councils on a proportional political and geographical basis.

    And if responsibility for school education is transferred to CAs, then three key demands come to the fore to retain democratic accountability:
    • An elected assembly for each Combined Authority, along the lines of the London and Welsh Assemblies, with proportional representation.
    • A powerful Education Scrutiny Committee for each Combined Authority, comprising representatives of the schools as well as elected councillors.
    • The CA’s DSS to be subject to the education policies of the CA and accountable to it.

  6. Birmingham Against The Cuts says:

    My mistake – this comment and the previous one are by Richard Hatcher and the last paragraph should have read:

    And if responsibility for school education is transferred to CAs, then three key demands come to the fore to retain democratic accountability:
    • An Education Committee for each Combined Authority, comprising representatives of stakeholders as well as elected councillors.
    • A powerful Education Scrutiny Committee for each Combined Authority, comprising representatives of the schools as well as elected councillors.
    • The CA’s DSS to be subject to the education policies of the CA and accountable to it.

  7. trevorfisher2 says:

    the interview was a non event and made no commitments at all. The headline catching abolition of GCSE in ten years postpones any action for a decade. I know people want to believe that Labour is progressive, but the only actual quote from Hunt which had any political meaning was the 2.55pm quote.

    That one indicates he wants schools to open 8am to 6pm. Which is what he thinks academies do.

    He clearly had been driving past a school at 2.55pm. What is interesting is that he does not make any attempt to find out why the school was ending its day so early. If an academy – and all the secondaries in Stoke are now academies – then they already have the freedoms to do what he wants to do, And they do not do it.

    The only guide to what Labour will do is the manifesto statement. This was hot air and it is depressing that this back of the envelope stuff is thought of to be progressive. As Brumcase indicates, the ramblings should be opposed, on a democratic basis if nothing else. The wider community should be consulted on the changes to their school management, and inside the Labour Party there should have been a massive cry of protest at the agreed policy being rewritten by someone who has no idea what is going on in schools.

    Hence the importance of the 2.55 comment.

    No such in depth thinking alas. I recommend people have a look at the letter I had published in the guardian in response (26th April) as there is a crisis coming with GCSE, in weeks not in ten years.

    Hunt and his chat to the guardian show no understanding of this, and the clear fact that the independent schools are quitting GCSE for the IGCSE to get away from the constant political rantings from Gove, Hunt, and their successors (MOrgan is as bad) has not yet been understood in the Westminster bubble…. which is ignoring what is actually happening in the schools…. and will Hunt be in charge In May? Education has dropped out of the election as a debating issue, which is something this site should be concerned about.

    There is a good debate on the latter factor on Local Schools Network.

    We are marginalized, and the fact that Hunt can completely ignore the Labour Party in talking to the Guardian should start alarm bells ringing as this part time politician may be in a position to make serious mistakes after the election

    But not on exams. Nothing promised for this parliament. Sad that this was a very clear message that flew under the radar.

    Trevor FIsher