Labour has a clear plan to raise school standards – we should feel confident to shout about it

 In Croydon, Speeches

This article was first published on LabourList and can be found here.

While parents and families worry about exam results, childcare bills and rocketing rail fares, the Westminster bubble has been consumed this summer by silly-season chatter.

It’s difficult for the opposition to get a hearing against two parties in government, and we need to do more to get our case across, but it’s simply not true that Labour doesn’t have any policies.  At the risk of sounding like a Monty Python sketch, presumably they mean we don’t have any policies apart from the restoration of the 10p tax rate; a compulsory jobs guarantee; a cap on rail fares; a bankers’  bonus tax; building 25,000 new affordable homes; a new energy regulator…of course I could go on.

Nowhere is this truer than in education. While Michael Gove pursues gimmicks and pet projects, Stephen Twigg and the frontbench team have been laying the foundations for a One Nation Labour education policy.

They have developed a clear plan to raise standards in our schools and clear up the mess that Michael Gove is creating. We can be proud of it.

At its heart is a plan to drive up the quality of teaching. The evidence from the OECD shows this is the most important factor in improving standards. While Michael Gove threatens standards by allowing unqualified teachers in the classroom, Labour would strengthen teacher qualifications.

A Labour Government would introduce a new College of Teaching to rival the best medical Royal Colleges, and encourage more high flying graduates to teach in challenging schools. We would expand successful schemes like Teach First, and allow teachers to get better on the job training, including working towards a masters’ degree and ensuring vocational teachers do regular placements in industry.

On Free Schools, Labour would end Michael Gove’s disastrous experiment which has done little for standards. While existing free schools will continue, we will stop his programme which has wasted hundreds of millions of pounds setting up schools in areas where they aren’t needed or wanted by parents.

Instead, we would have a parent-academy programme to allow parent groups to set up new schools. We would give communities a bigger say in where new schools are built and ensure capital spending is focussed on addressing the shortages of places in some areas of the country – particularly at primary school level. Contrast that with Gove’s top-down approach that is forcing Croydon’s Roke Primary School to join a national academy chain against the wishes of local parents.  Where’s the people power in that?

The academies programme would continue, but Labour would ensure they employ qualified teachers, provide healthy school meals and are accountable to the local community. We will also expand to all schools the freedoms that academies have to innovate – over the curriculum, school terms and outsourcing. If a freedom raises standards, we will ensure all schools are able to enjoy that freedom.

It is critical that we are tough with schools that are failing their pupils – so Labour would introduce new powers to allow local authorities to issue notices to improve for all schools, including free schools and academies.  This will reintroduce local democratic accountability in place of the Tories’ centralisation of control in Whitehall.

Underperformance will be challenged wherever it is found, just as Labour did in London where schools went from being some of the worst in the country to some of the best under the last Labour Government.

It’s right that as the party of aspiration, we support more pupils from lower income backgrounds and state schools to get into our top universities. Michael Gove’s changes have been described by Cambridge as jeopardising “over a decade’s progress towards fairer access”. Labour will restore the AS Level as a stepping stone to a full A Level for this reason.

And Labour will take action to provide high quality options for the 50% of young people who don’t go on to university. At last year’s conference, Ed and Stephen announced plans for a new gold standard Technical Baccalaureate at 18 with rigorous vocational courses accredited by employers and a quality work placement. At the same time, we will ensure all pupils study English and Maths to 18 as we know how important those subjects are in work and later life.

Finally, Labour will ensure education reforms are based not on dogma but on the best available evidence. Stephen Twigg has said he will set up an “Office for Educational Improvement” to ensure the latest research and data informs our policy decisions.

This is a radical and broad agenda for ensuring young people are prepared for the challenges of the future while Michael Gove is in a time-warp recreating a narrow and elitist education system that is totally unfit for the needs of today’s children or the economy they will eventually work in.

It’s no wonder that in education, Labour has a consistent poll lead over the Conservatives, according to You Gov’s issues tracker.  While Michael Gove may be popular among right wing journalists, he is mistrusted by parents, teachers and young people.

Of course there is more to do, and between now and 2015 I want to see us announcing further plans to drive up the quality of education and ensure young people get the best start in life. But we should feel confident about shouting about what we’ve announced so far.