On education, Labour and the left now need to set out a clear and simple alternative to the Coalition's ill-conceived and damaging policies, argues Melissa Benn. Part of our series of short contributions from prominent writers and activists looking to the year ahead.
2013 should be the year that Labour, and the left in general, turns away from defensive positioning and begins to outline its own policies for future generations.
Nowhere is this more relevant than in the area of education.
The last couple of years have been difficult for Labour’s front bench, in part because the Coalition appeared to be further building on, and improving, on policies introduced under New Labour.
In fact, the Tory led government has increased educational inequality, with a massive shift of resources from struggling schools to already successful ones. And despite all the hype about academies and free schools, educational improvement has been the result of more prosaic across-school factors: improved teaching, strong leadership and collaboration – not competition – between schools.
But as we go into 2013, Gove’s plans are going seriously awry, particularly with the ill-thought through proposals for the new e-bacc qualification (opposed by everyone from Ofqual to the teaching unions) and rock-bottom morale among teachers.
It is clear that state education is not safe in hyperactive Coalition hands and we desperately need a period of stability and slowly-slowly evidence-driven reform.
In terms of public projection of its argument, Labour – and the left – needs to keep the edu-jargon to a minimum and its sights set firmly on a number of simple ideas:
• Keep education public. No-one wants to see private companies take over our schools.
• Create a well trained, highly professional teaching force. Here, Labour could learn from Finland, the highest performing country in Europe, with its rigorous entry requirements - and equally tough training. (Compare this to Tory quick fix policies to let untrained teachers into schools.)
• Create high quality school buildings and smaller classes. Again, all the evidence suggests that a pleasant environment and more personalised teaching is crucial, particularly to poorer childrens' chances. Spending pledges are always going to be difficult in an age of austerity, but this would not be a hard one to justify to a nation of parents desperate for excellent, local schools.
• Forge a modern, broad based, stimulating curriculum. This is particularly vital given that every child in the UK will soon be required to stay on at school under they are 18. We need a ‘One Nation’ system that can provide a core education and then, at 16, provide credible pathways to further vocational and academic study.
Melissa Benn's 'School Wars: The Battle for Britain's Education', published by Verso, is now out in paperback, with a new afterword.