An Open Letter to Angela Rayner, Rebecca Long-Bailey
on Education Policy.
Dear Angela and Rebecca,
Brexit is nearly upon us and voters will rightly be asking how the Labour Party intends to deal with the education system and the labour market in the years to come. Sadly, at the moment not much seems to be going on. Yet there are some really important issues that need answers with content rather than slogans. Here are some of them (and this list is by no means exhaustive):
- A continuing long tail of underachievement in literacy and numeracy.
- Domination of the education system by universities.
- Part privatisation of the schools through the academies policy.
- The continuing poor condition of vocational and further education.
- A labour market that is chronically short of good jobs.
- A possible post-Brexit shortage of many different kinds of know-how.
- Regional imbalances in education and vocational education provision.
Education policy is always tricky. It is intimately linked to labour market policy. Changes in policy can lead to unexpected and unwanted consequences. All the more reason to start detailed work on problems the country will face before the 2022 General Election. Because these issues are so complex and interconnected they cannot be dealt with in one letter. We will deal with them one by one and try to show how they are connected with each other.
Let’s start with the first issue. Britain has a problem with literacy and numeracy. Uniquely amongst OECD countries, performance in literacy and numeracy for 16-25 year olds is poorer than it is for 55-64 year olds. And this after over 40 years of continuous education reform, starting with Jim Callaghan’s ‘Great Debate’ speech in 1976. Someone who is now 64 would have been 12 then and if the OECD’s statistics are to be believed, those 40+ years have led to deteriorating standards in the basics. Callaghan, you probably won’t remember, was concerned that the ‘progressive’ reforms of the 1960s had led to a decline in achievement. That may well have been the case, but subsequent ‘anti-progressive’ reforms don’t seem to have helped much either. Before any remedy can be advanced, an explanation is needed for what has happened.
It is reasonable to assume that there are two sets of factors at work. The first are internal, to do with school and education policy, resources, curriculum, teacher quality, methods of teaching and assessment. The second are external, to do with attitudes in society, technological change and the labour market. Unfortunately, the OECD doesn’t seem to have much idea of what has been going on and neither do British politicians. One thing that has been tried by successive governments is lots of testing, more focus on reading, writing and maths at the expense of other subjects. But you don’t need to spend endless amounts of time teaching these subjects and thus crowding out other important subjects, you need to teach them effectively. It is reasonable to assume that this has not been happening to a sufficient degree and this raises an uncomfortable question. ‘Are schools and teachers up to the task?’ Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to suggest that all the blame should be laid on schools. It is governments that set policies, structures and provide resources and teachers have to work within these. Furthermore, it may be that the external factors are also important and the government is certainly responsible for some of these. I don’t get the impression, looking at Labour’s manifesto, that this issue has been addressed in the party’s thinking. See:https://labour.org.uk/manifesto/education/
There are unlikely to be easy answers, so improvement is likely be something that takes place over the long term. Incidentally, we are not here just talking about children who are destined for jobs that require no qualifications. According to the OECD, 10% of UK university graduates have poor basic skills. This raises questions about the quality of secondary, further and higher education. Basic skills should be taught in primary and lower secondary schools before the age of 16 at the very latest and preferably by the age of 14. It is not the job of upper secondary, further, vocational, technical or higher education to attend to these matters.
So the Labour Party needs to take a good, hard look at primary education and to see what may not be going so well there. This would include teacher quality and teaching methods but also attitudes and expectations amongst communities and parents as well as children. There could well be some uncomfortable messages there but they need to come out, not get drowned in aspirational-sounding waffle. As a first stab at this issue, it may be advisable to address matters in the short-term by providing much more direction as to how literacy and numeracy should be taught, based on reliable research. An updated version of the national literacy and numeracy strategies might be considered together with lessons that can be learned from successful small-scale initiatives like the West Dunbartonshire Literacy Initiative, run by a socialist council in a poor local authority on Clydeside. One potential problem here is resistance from some of the teaching unions, so some difficult conversations may need to begin.
I’m aware that the teaching of reading has become an ideological battleground, which is unfortunate. However, there is good evidence that phonics teaching in reading, when done properly, can have a moderately good effect without being a cure-all for deep-seated problems. For a summary of the evidence see the Education Endowment Foundation website:
This suggests that policy on teaching should be based on evidence that has accumulated over a long period and should be incorporated into teacher training and development programmes. There is nothing ‘progressive’ or ‘reactionary’ about particular teaching of reading methods, although a lot of people seem to think so. But we should also not forget that if you want people to be able to read, write and count, they must want to do so. Their parents must also want to do so and be able to help their children to do so too.
There’s one other important point to be made about teaching methods. There is plenty of good evidence that mixed ability grouping within classes produces better results overall than either streaming pupils into ability classes or setting them according to ability in particular subjects. Again, the Education Endowment Foundation has good data on this.
This evidence will need to be taken seriously by the party if it wishes to attach the problem of underachievement. The issue is related to school admissions policy, but I will deal with that later.
Most people are pragmatic about these issues. For them, going to school is a means to an end, not an end in itself, although they would like the experience to be enjoyable as well. But, for it to have a point it should have a payoff in adult life in the form of a happier life and an interesting job. One of the problems in Britain is that there are too few jobs like that and therefore too few incentives to apply oneself in school. That may be deplorable, but it is the reality and needs to be addressed. That’s why education and economic policy need to be considered together. Getting a jobs strategy right is fundamental to long term educational change, which is why I am writing to you both jointly. If Labour can effect educational improvements and at the same time increase the supply of good jobs then they will be successful as a government. But education is a complex area and I have only dealt with one aspect of it in this part of the letter. Next time, I’ll have a look at the governance and quality assurance of educational institutions. I’ll go on to look at higher education policy, technical and vocational education, transition from school to work and the impact of regional policies on education and employment.