- This blog was kindly authored for HEPI by Sir Chris Husbands, Vice-Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University.
Politicians should think big. They should think about the next frontier. They should focus government on difficult issues. Keir Starmer has committed Labour to five ambitious missions, of which the fifth is squarely focused on educational transformation. The mission is stated simply and squarely: ‘Labour will shatter the glass ceiling in Britain’. It’s a rallying call against inequality of opportunity and unfair access to education which prevents potential from being realised.
Labour’s education mission is accompanied by a twenty-three-page briefing document which is underpinned by what Rachel Reeves, the Shadow Chancellor has called “securonomics“: putting in place the economic and social structures which make “security the foundation of opportunity”. “Education”, says the paper, “is at the heart of our mission to spread and expand opportunity”. There are three “long-term measurable goals” focusing on early years, school outcomes and “expand[ing] high quality education, employment and training routes”.
Early years is where Labour’s heart currently is, and with good reason. Sure Start, the Blair Government’s signature policy to provide wrap-around support for new parents and children in the early years, was one of the earliest victims of austerity. A developing national network for early support was destroyed, and with it key foundations for learning. There is strong global evidence that early years matters a lot. Inequalities are there at birth, reinforced by early experiences and becoming deeply embedded in children’s lives with devastating consequences. Long-term, sustained investment in high quality early learning makes a lot of sense. It’s not easy: the economics of early education, the quality of the workforce and the relationship between education and care in the early years all need sophisticated policy interventions, sustained over time if they are to succeed. But the commitment to early years makes exceptionally good sense.
For the Coalition and subsequent Conservative governments, the priority was never early years, but wide-ranging school curriculum and structural reforms. Here, Labour is asking the right questions about curriculum breadth, teacher supply and quality, special needs, child and adolescent mental health support and school accountability. But their prospectus lacks the clarity of vision that underpins their early years proposals. They are strong on critique: on the way the Conservatives’ focus on a “knowledge-rich” curriculum has had a narrowing effect, the challenges of recruiting and retaining a strong teacher workforce and on the relationship between poor mental health and barriers to learning. All these are serious issues. But their planned interventions need more clarity: to take one example, it is obviously vital to “prepare young people for a digital future”, for example, but Labour’s commitment, which is to “work with schools, colleges, universities, and unions to explore where [technology] can support improvements” feels underdeveloped, as do other ideas. What’s striking is just how much of the overall structure of the current school policy landscape Labour seem willing to retain. They propose modest reforms to the Ofsted regime, but on the overall structure of the school system, assessment and regulation, their proposals are incremental.
Labour’s thinking about higher education is set in the context of “pathways to good prospects for all”. In terms of sheer word count, further education, and technical and vocational pathways attract more text than anything on higher education, and that’s not a bad thing. Once again, their critique of government is largely managerial: they are (rightly) critical of the decline in skills and training opportunities, and of careers advice and work experience, but their criticism of T-levels is tellingly about the “Conservatives’ mismanagement of their introduction”. There’s a broad acceptance of much of the framework in which higher education works: student fee repayment arrangements will be adjusted, but not fundamentally changed, with no commitment on the pressing issues of maintenance payments or undergraduate fee levels; the Lifelong Loan Entitlement – a Conservative policy with a very long lead time will be “harnessed”, but apparently kept – again with limited acknowledgement of the vast policy complexity behind this; and research funding arrangements will be maintained and “focused on driv[ing] up economic growth”. Labour proposes a new quango to be called ‘Skills England’ which appears designed to run what is a complex skills system more coherently and effectively.
Labour’s mission is bold. Its analysis is strong. It offers a powerful critique of an education system which isn’t working anywhere near well enough. The goals are clear, with a powerful social justice commitment. But that glass ceiling has proved incredibly difficult to crack over the last century. Labour is surely right that tackling inequality is the frontier for twenty-first century progressive politics. But bold missions need determined, joined-up interventions which change lives deprived of opportunity by insecurity and inequality. Given the parlous state of the economy, the paper underlines how cautious Labour is about making spending commitments which would give the challenge heft. The post-war Labour government brought about transformation in a shattered economy, and this will be the challenge for an incoming Labour government. That will mean mobilising resources in a different way. Labour is right to promote creativity, but that will depend on rethinking the relationships between education, arts and culture. Labour is right to focus on high-level skills training but needs to ensure that employers and others support the actual costs. Labour’s goal is brave, and their approach is compelling, but there is more big thinking to be done on how to design tough policies which truly shatter that ceiling when resources are so constrained.