Labour’s Credibility on Education

Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.


When someone in a position of power or influence makes a series of errors so calamitous, profound and grievous that they do real and lasting damage, and fails to ever acknowledge those mistakes or to make any kind of apology, one tends to disregard what they have to say on that particular topic in future. Think neo-conservatives on starting wars in the Middle East, the Labour Party on the economy and Dick Cheney on absolutely anything.

But when someone owns their past mistakes and appears to have learned from them and grown as a result, it is quite different. And so it is with the Labour Party and their approach to education policy while in opposition. Sure, they haven’t undergone a Road to Damascus conversion and mended their ways entirely – the suspicion that their preoccupation with equality of outcome lurks behind everything remains quite strong – but nonetheless I want to give credit where credit is due. And today, credit belongs to Tristram Hunt, Labour’s shadow Education Secretary.

This kudos comes on two fronts. Firstly, the Daily Mail reports that Hunt is repudiating some of Labour’s past educational priorities and actions whilst in government, in terms of pushing as many children as possible to just cross the “no longer an idiot” threshold for the benefit of statistics and league tables, but then failing to challenge them any further:

Labour created a culture of low expectations for state school pupils, Tristram Hunt, the shadow education secretary has admitted.

He said it was a ‘great crime’ that the last government had failed to pushed children more than simply aim for them to achieve a C grade at GCSE level.

He also admitted that exams had been dumbed down in recent years, saying ‘yes, there are elements of grade inflation’.

This is actually quite a significant admission from someone in the shadow cabinet, and the refreshing bravery deserves recognition. The enshrining of the “good” GCSE result as being a grade falling within the A* to C range has certainly created a perverse incentive to push as many laggardly students up into the bottom threshold whilst neglecting the needs of those who had the potential to achieve much more.

This willingness to look as past initiatives and admit mistakes in the field of education policy now makes Labour much more credible on this topic, and they have immediately stolen a march with their new proposal to license teachers in a bid to drive up professional standards. The Guardian reports:

In a sign of how Labour hopes to outflank education secretary Michael Gove on teaching standards, Hunt is to revive a plan the last government abandoned on the eve of the 2010 general election.

Teachers would have to show they are meeting the high standards and would be required to undergo training to update their skills.

Under Hunt’s plans, teachers would have their lessons assessed by other teachers in a system overseen by a new Royal College of Teaching.

As a society we often pay lip service to the importance of education and good teachers, but when it comes to standing behind that commitment, too often we have been found lacking. We claim to admire good teachers and value them, but do not compensate the best of them anywhere near adequately, and do not expect them to adhere to the professional codes of behaviour (as encapsulated by ongoing training and recertification) that are common in many other prestigious lines of work.

Indeed, Tristram Hunt goes on to make this very point:

Hunt insisted that his plans would raise the standing of the teaching profession. He said: “This is about growing the profession. This is about believing that teachers have this enormous importance. Just like lawyers and doctors, they should have the same professional standing which means relicensing themselves, which means continual professional development, which means being the best possible they can be.”

The fact that these proposals are coming from Labour and not the Tories also confers a immediate advantage in terms of winning backing from the teachers unions, which would be essential to their smooth rollout if ever the proposals became law.

And crucially, from a purely political perspective its puts the Conservatives in the awkward position of having to either reject a potentially very sensible proposal to improve educational standards, or to adopt it and face cries of plagiarism. Rather despairingly, one has to wonder why Michael Gove’s Department of Education didn’t manage to think up a policy proposal such as this on their own.



If Labour ever showed the wherewithal to perform a similar trick on the subject of economic stewardship – admitting their past fault for growing the state to unsustainable levels and proportions of national output, thus making the pain of the recession so much worse for those people more reliant on the government, and acknowledging that some rebalancing is not only necessary but desirable – then the Tories might really be in trouble.

But I imagine there is a greater chance of it snowing in hell than there is of Ed Balls following Tristram Hunt’s lead any time soon.


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