As the Labour Party gathers in Liverpool next week, flush from a big by-election win and sitting on a healthy 20-point lead in the polls, attention will turn to what Labour will say about how it is going to govern.
For any incoming government, a major priority area will always be the education system. Education and Skills is central to Keir Starmer’s five missions and is one of the most prominent parts of the National Policy Forum report that will set the framework for the Labour manifesto.
The reality is though, that from early years through to university and beyond, the sector is facing systemic challenges. Whether it is the difficulties in the recruitment and retention of teachers; the failings of the apprenticeship system; the rising funding pressure pushing some universities to the brink of failure; the spike in pupil referrals; or school buildings crumbling. There are crises to be dealt with everywhere.
To discuss the legacy that Labour will be left with and what they can do to ensure that the education system is fit for purpose, I was delighted to welcome senior representatives from an array of organisations across the education sector to a roundtable discussion on what an incoming Labour government could do to break down the barriers of opportunity.
While the demands and challenges from each part of the sector are considerable, some of the key things to watch out for that came from that informative discussion are as follows:
- Crisis managing schools. The first order of business is to address the personnel and workload difficulties facing schools. It is therefore entirely understandable why Labour has decided to stand by their pledge on business taxes and VAT on private schools to fund more teachers and mental health support in schools. Solving the immediate crisis in schools must be their top priority.
- Incremental change not revolution. The education sector always seems to be in a permanent state of revolution, with new Quangos, systems, frameworks and products imposed on the sector. In many ways the sector does not currently have the capacity to manage a major curriculum or structural upheaval. You only have to look at the exasperated response from the education sector to Rishi Sunak’s announcement on replacing A Levels to understand the wariness of continual upheaval. A new Labour government could be bold just by saying what it isn’t going to do, pulling back from its interventionist instincts, allowing the sector experts the room to problem solve, and adopting an incremental approach to change so as not to heap further pressure on a sector already struggling to cope.
- Rekindling a love of learning. Having said the above, there is a need to address the fact that Britian seems to have fallen out of love with learning. Whether there is a need to focus less on drilling Maths and English and more on socialisation skills in early years education; bringing more creativity and diversity back to the school curriculum; using technology to reconnect people to learning in more convenient ways; or investing in lifelong learning for those embarking on a second or third career; the challenge for a future Government will be reengaging and restoring faith in an education system that delivers for the British public at all stages of their life.
- Addressing the skills challenge. Falling productivity, under attainment at levels 3 & 4, poor use of the apprenticeship levy, and the challenge of ensuring people have the training and skills to do the jobs needed in our rapidly decarbonising and AI-enabled economy, will all be in the in-tray of the new Skills Minister. The question for Labour will be where and how they want to address it. Either further devolution of skills funding and power to cities and/ or taking skills out of the DfE and closely attaching them to either the departments for Business or Work could reposition skills at the heart of the economy.
- Recognising cultural shifts. The last Labour government boldly committed to a target of 50% of young people going to university, recognising the importance of this to driving social mobility. As they look to return to government, they see a system whereby young people and their parents are questioning the potentially poor return on investment against the high levels of debt attached to a university education, and where the mental health crisis facing young people is encouraging families to reconsider what is valued: educational outcomes or health and wellbeing. While there is no suggestion that Labour will retreat from its long-term goal of 50% of young people in higher education, it is clear there needs to be other pathways for young people in schools, and pathways with as much opportunity and prestige as that offered by a university education.
The last time a Labour government was elected, its central mantra was ‘Education, Education, Education’, and the Blair and Brown years saw the Labour government take bold decisions and heavily invest in education at all levels, trying to make good on this mantra.
Starmer’s Labour will not be in as fortunate a position this time and will need to make choices on where they can spend limited money and think creatively about how to use the resources they do have in a different way.
For those organisations businesses and institutions looking to ensure that their particular part of the sector gets the attention and resource it needs, then you need to be able to make a strong coherent case, showing how you can make effective uses of resources and deliver opportunities for all.